Kiddin' with Kate: <I>Raising Helen </I>raises laughs

She was good in Almost Famous, but Kate Hudson is rapidly becoming my least favorite offspring of a most favorite parent. When she has to choose between acting and being cute, acting almost invariably loses.

In spite of her– and that's a lot to overlook because she's hardly ever off the screen– Raising Helen is a pleasant experience for most of its length. If it didn't overstay its welcome by at least 15 minutes, I'd even recommend it.

Raising Helen is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, without a single surprise or new idea to jolt the viewer. It was directed by Garry Marshall, whose sister Penny would have made a real gooey mess of it, suitable only for the Lifetime Channel.

To give you an idea of the universe you're venturing into, this is a movie where the big shock is the revelation that some teenagers– the "bad" kids, naturally– have sex on prom night!

Hudson plays Helen Harris, the youngest of three sisters. Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) has three children, Jenny (Joan Cusack) has two and one on the way. In keeping with the "Three Sisters" motif, a pregnant woman is like what Chekhov said about a gun: Once you introduce one in a drama, you've got to use it. (Or was that Ibsen?)

Helen is a career woman on the fast track at Dominique's (Helen Mirren) modeling agency. She likes to party and gets VIP treatment at all the in clubs.

Lindsay and her husband are killed, and Lindsay has left instructions that Helen should be guardian to their kids. Jenny, a domestic supermom, is a backup in case Helen is unwilling or unable to perform her duties.

We've already seen that Helen has a great rapport with the kids, as long as she's not responsible for them. You don't need the hint of the title to know that acting as a mother will make Helen grow up– as the army did for Hudson's mother (Goldie Hawn) in Private Benjamin.

Of course it won't be easy. Sixteen-hour workdays are no longer an option for Helen. When the job becomes too much, she gives it up, later going to work as a receptionist at Mickey Massey's (unbilled Hector Elizondo, who appears in all Marshall's films) car dealership.

Each kid presents unique problems, even after Helen has relocated them from their old "sad neighborhood" in New Jersey to an apartment in Queens and enrolled them in Pastor Dan's (John Corbett) Lutheran school, where Pastor Dan is practically the only Lutheran.

Long before he tells Helen, "I'm a sexy man of God and I know it," you know he's going to provide the film's romantic element.

Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) is a teenager who's starting to get involved with boys, so the worst boy at school homes in on her. Henry (Spencer Breslin) loses interest in basketball (which he's not exactly built for) after his parents' death. Young Sarah (Abigail Breslin) can't learn to tie her shoes and is fixated on her stuffed hippo, a nice bit of product placement with the manufacturer's label in evidence.

Of course Helen has to give up at some point and let Jenny take over, because a woman who's eight months pregnant really needs three more kids to take care of. Cusack coasts through most of the picture (her coasting is better than most actresses giving all they've got) but has one brilliant moment in a motel room.

Trendspotters will note that it's no longer enough to sing along with the oldies. As 13 Going on 30 had a "Thriller" dance, Raising Helen revives "Whip It" for a mini-production number.

The screenplay has enough good one-liners to keep the familiar material entertaining, if not fresh. It's vastly better than the similar Jersey Girl and marginally better than last year's Uptown Girls, but aimed at the same audience.