It is not everyday that you see a Hollywood movie featuring a well-adjusted and humorous Lutheran clergyman as the lead romantic interest. While that is not the main point of Raising Helen, it does make for an oddly refreshing aspect to the film. This dramatic comedy follows the struggles of a trendy and successful party girl who is suddenly confronted with the responsibility of raising three kids after the death of her sister and brother-in-law.
Kate Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) plays Helen Harris who gets invited to all the right parties as she juggles her ultra-cool career at a Manhattan modeling agency. When tragedy strikes her family, she must learn to make the adjustment from a hip aunt to a mom who must lay down the law.
During her venture into instant motherhood, Helen meets Pastor Dan Parker (played by John Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), the principal at the children’s Lutheran school. He helps Helen sort through the priorities in her life, even encouraging her to take a chance at dating a clergyman. The sparkling and awkward chemistry between the two develops into a romantic relationship.
Although there are many other relational twists within this feel-good movie, the portrayal of a non-neurotic and self-confident clergyman proved most interesting. Ask most clergy and they will tell you that they hate the way they get cast in films or television–droning on in sermons, lackluster personalities spouting clichés, or authoritarian hypocrites. Very rarely are you able to see a normal minister who likes watching football after preaching on Sunday.
Too often the portrayal of the clergy–from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal–range from overly pious to overly perverted, with few nuanced or realistic human elements found in their characters. While critics can point out that Pastor Dan never quotes Bible verses to this flustered single mom, I actually found that to be realistic. Besides, nothing hampers romance like a good chat about eschatology or Saint Paul’s use of run-on sentences in the Book of Romans.
Director Garry Marshall was more than willing to talk about the unique religious aspect of the movie. “It was one of the reasons that I took the picture,” he tells me. “I thought it was an interesting spin on the love story. We usually don’t do that,” says Marshall, who has been at the helm of movies such as Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Princess Diaries, and the TV hit Happy Days.
Despite being Italian, Marshall was not raised Roman Catholic. “I was actually Lutheran for a while, and I was Episcopalian, I was baptized Presbyterian, and so I covered most of the bases,” he says.
Aside from being a good story with an interesting twist, Marshall said that there was an additional motivating factor involved. “To be very honest, with some of the religious things going on in the news–everything in the Catholic Church–I thought that somewhere there should be a positive statement that religion has a good place, and it has its good people,” he says.
Marshall ran into a roadblock when he found out that John Corbett, who was playing the minister, was really tired of playing nice guy roles. “But slowly this intrigued him,” says Marshall. “That it was a different kind of love interest.”
For his part, Corbett, who forthrightly describes himself as a non-church-going, born-again Christian who is intrigued by the Book of Revelation, said that he didn’t need to do any kind of research for his role as a clergyman since he spent twelve years in Catholic school.
Marshall said that he was “startled that Disney would take a shot” with a movie with such an overt religious undertone. “The first draft was filled with religious jokes. We didn’t need them all,” says Marshall. There is one scene where a little girl says to Pastor Dan, “Shoes are hard to tie,” and he deadpans, “That’s why Jesus wore sandals.” The gags are tasteful and humorous religious double entendres.
Marshall has seen a real shift in Hollywood’s willingness to grapple with religious themes and imagery. “In television they wouldn’t let you do a show about a religious person unless they flew like the ‘Flying Nun,’” he says. Television executives believed that audiences would perceive that nothing tragic or out of the ordinary could happen to priests or ministers, thereby cutting clergy characters off from dramatic interaction. “In the 1970s and 1960s that was truly a big reason why you didn’t do religious shows in comedy, in the sitcom business. But now I think it has changed and it can be done,” Marshall observes. “It can be done with humor.”
Marshall discovered that Raising Helen audiences were far less concerned about a subtle nod to religion as they were about the welfare of the parentless kids in the movie. Viewers were reassured that Kate Hudson and the children were being cared for by a man in a clerical collar.
“It kind of built the case better than if she would have been running around with a bartender–nothing wrong with bartenders–or a band singer or something. This man was going to give solidity to that family,” Marshall says. (Yes, it is an ironic observation, considering that Kate Hudson is a brand new mother in real life and married to Chris Robinson, the former singer for the Black Crowes.)
While Raising Helen is not intended to be a religious movie, Marshall has been gratified to hear of the good response from people of faith who have pre-screened the film. “Can’t compete with Mel Gibson,” he said, “but we figured we will do our part.”
[Raising Helen is rated PG-13 for thematic issues involving teens.]