Sometimes the simplest of crimes are the ones that go the most awry—a fact Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) find out the hard way. You see they both have money problems: Andy is an overextended payroll exec who has been embezzling from his company while Hank is a flighty ne’er-do-well who can’t pay child support. When Andy hatches a larcenous scheme to rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store that appears to be the quintessential easy target Hank is in—until he finds out the store owners are Andy and Hank’s actual mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). “How can we do that?” Hank asks his cold-hearted brother but Andy assures Hank it’s a piece of cake and that no one will get hurt. Famous last words. Hank’s fears are realized when the job goes horribly wrong and tragedy reaches unprecedented heights. A top-notch cast like this only makes things better. Hoffman in particular gives yet another tour-de-force performance as the troubled Andy a man wounded by his father’s hard-headedness and lack of affection throughout the years. Hoffman alternates between calculating coldness and heart-wrenching desperation—all while keeping his outwardly appearance impeccable. Hawke’s Hank on the other hand is just a mess through and through a “puppy dog ” as so described by Andy who wears his heart on his sleeve and is his father’s favorite. Although Hawke whines and grates his way through the performance that is what the part requires and he is quite effective at it. Finney as the brothers’ old man is also conflicted devastated by the tragedy yet determined to get to the bottom of it--and when he realizes it’s his sons Finney plays the moment perfectly. Also good is Marisa Tomei as Andy’s stressed wife; she plays her like a caged bird looking for a way out. When things keep getting worse you cringe in anticipation of each character’s next move. Sidney Lumet is certainly an expert in train-wreck crime dramas having served up such classics as Dog Day Afternoon Serpico and Prince of the City as well as other stellar efforts such as 12 Angry Men Network and The Verdict. He’s also directed 17 different actors in their Oscar-winning performances--and still the man himself has yet to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Funny how it always works out that way. Over the last few years Lumet has stumbled a bit (2006’s Find Me Guilty didn’t help matters) but you shouldn’t underestimate his talent when he can really sink his teeth into something. Before the Devil is right up his alley and he spins it with all the experience and professionalism he has at his fingertips. Its nonstop pace is enhanced by some clever editing in which time jumps back and forth over the span of a week. And of course Lumet once again guides his actors into stellar performances. You get this dysfunctional family immediately without a word spoken. The director is surely looking at his sixth Oscar nomination and if he wins the Big One for what in essence is his body of work at least we can say he won for something truly worthy.
Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) is the quintessential Sex and the City single gal with a fabulous job at a top modeling agency and a swingin' social life. But her carefree lifestyle comes to a screeching halt when her beloved oldest sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) and brother-in-law are killed in a car accident and Helen is suddenly named the legal guardian to her sister's three kids--Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) 15; Henry (Spencer Breslin) 10 and Sarah (Abigail Breslin) 5. Sure Helen is great at being the coolest aunt in New York but as a mom? A whole different story. Coupled with this is the fact her other sister Jenny (Joan Cusack) a supermom in her own right is completely flabbergasted Lindsay did not choose her as legal guardian and takes every opportunity to tell Helen she isn't cut out for mommy-hood. Still Helen is determined to at least try to adhere to her late sister's wishes and finds a little help along the way with Dan Parker (John Corbett) the handsome young pastor and principal of the kids' new school. But it's tough for the party girl to ditch her old ways--even for the new loves of her life.
Even if her choices have been suspect of late (Alex & Emma? Bad idea Kate) Hudson does have a certain joie de vivre that radiates on screen and makes even the most cornball script palatable. Even if Raising Helen falls into the predictable Hudson's Helen never does; all her emotions are veritable and heartfelt especially when she's dealing with the kids. The young actors also do an excellent job adding to the film's emotions. Panettiere all grown up from child roles in Joe Somebody and HBO's Normal does a nice job as a teen struggling with the loss of her parents as well as raging hormones while the Breslin siblings Spencer (The Cat in the Hat) and his younger sister Abigail (Signs) handle the tear-jerking scenes with aplomb especially Abigail. It doesn't matter what frame of mind you're in watching a little girl cry over the fact she can't tie her shoes because her mother isn't around to teach her is gonna get you every single time. Cusack inhabits yet another uptight role in a string of uptight roles (School of Rock; In & Out) but she does it so well you can't blame her. Same goes for Corbett. He continues to play the same adorable sexy man he's played countless times before (Sex and the City My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and we don't mind if they just keep letting him.
Labeled a "heartwarming comedy" from director Garry Marshall some may be hard pressed to find any comedy in Raising Helen. Grief-stricken children; rebellious self-destructive teenagers; feuding sisters not to mention death--oh yeah this film is hilarious. At least the heartwarming part is true-- a technique Marshall has mastered having directed all-out hankie producers such as Beaches and romantic comedies such as Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries. The director certainly isn't afraid to show feelings as he brings out more than a few genuine emotions in Raising Helen especially between Helen and the kids. In one particularly honest moment teen Audrey has gotten herself into a bit of trouble and while Helen wants to be the parent should be the parent she just cannot find a way to reprimand the girl leaving the duties to the tough-as-nails Jenny. It's definitely a scene that hits home. Yet for all the truthfulness Raising Helen still has an overabundant amount of schmaltz--laying it on thick too many times and leaving very little surprises on how things are going to turn out.