With Saved!, writer-director Brian Dannelly has almost created a Ren McCormack for the oughts. At American Eagle Christian High School, a fundamentalist institution in an undisclosed but apparently wealthy suburb, the students are uniformed, well-behaved, and in lockstep devotion to Jesus. Christ’s love fills the halls—until a slutty-looking Jewish girl shows up to sully them with cigarettes and foul language.
But Saved! is less a Footloose without dancing than a Mean Girls of God. And like Mean Girls, Saved! sends a mixed message. We know we’re supposed to laugh when the movie’s eye-rolling token Jew, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), interrupts a back-to-school revival assembly by springing from her seat to speak gibberish (actually Pig Latin), roll her head around, and pull open her shirt as she mockingly pretends to have been touched by the Lord. And the school’s hip-to-be-square principal, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), is a cartoon with his flannel shirts and jive talk, which includes such horribly wrong entreaties as “Let’s get our Christ on!” and “Who’s down with G-O-D?”
Though Saved!’s main characters—co-created by first-time screenwriter Michael Urban—are just as absurd as the flavaful pastor and damnable Jesus-denier, Dannelly presents them with a seeming sincerity that confuses any satirical intention. Mary (Jena Malone), for instance, is lousy with virginity until her skater (as in Ice Capades) boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), tells her that he might be gay. Immediately after this confession, Mary has a vision in which Jesus asks her to do whatever she can to help Dean—which she interprets, in direct defiance of Pastor Skip’s teaching that “Christians don’t get jiggy with it until marriage,” as having sex with Dean to cure his “faggotry.”
Naturally, the plan doesn’t work. Dean is sent to a fix-’em-up hideaway called Mercy House, and Mary ends up both pregnant and losing faith—which Dannelly treats as a very, very serious development instead of turning Mary’s ridiculous spread-your-legs-for-Jesus logic into the punch line it should be. (Well, there is a point at which you may laugh at Mary’s crisis: Coming home from Planned Parenthood, sullen and unsure of what to do, Mary stops outside a church, looks up at a cross, and spreads her arms: “Fuck,” she sorta-prays. “Shit.” Then she shakes her head, starts to cry, and whispers the word that lets us know she’s reached a dark place indeed: “Goddamn.”)
Cassandra and fellow outsider Roland (a lifeless Macaulay Culkin), who’s wheelchair-bound and atheist, promptly provide Saved!’s sermon, joining forces to comfort Mary and, later, expose the hypocrisy of snotty queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Hilary Faye—always two names—is the lip-glossed leader of the school’s Christian Jewels, a group that Mary describes as “kind of like a girl gang for Jesus.” As written, the character is over the top, preaching ’n’ praising with a single-mindedness most teenage girls reserve for boyfriends and shopping. Though Moore throws herself into the part, Hilary Faye is both too sincere to be a parody and too zealous to be believable.
A few details do take shots at Christians, such as a bumper sticker on Cassandra’s car that reads “Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.” But just when it seems to be condemning organized faith, focusing on Hilary Faye’s inner evil and Cassandra’s transformation into a True Friend, Saved! is born again, culminating in a gaggingly sentimental shot of Mary, her new baby, and her circle of friends as she puts a happy spin on her crisis in voice-over: “I mean really, when you think about it, what would Jesus do?” This wussy backpedaling is nearly as annoying as the question itself, keeping Saved! from saying anything deeper than that Christians can be bitches, too.
The message in Raising Helen is much clearer: Mommies are good, careers are bad, and Garry Marshall has taken the place of God Almighty in doling out eternal damnation. At least it feels eternal: This insufferable film will have you squirming at the hour mark, cursing incredulously 15 minutes later, and begging for mercy by the time its two hours are up.
The alternately mawkish and wannabe-whimsical affair stars Kate Hudson as Helen, a fabulously single and worry-free assistant on the fast track at a Manhattan modeling agency. When one of her two happily married sisters, Lindsay (Felicity Huffman), is killed in a car accident along with her husband, Helen is left with custody of three children, much to the dismay of her supermom sibling, Jenny (Joan Cusack). Helen balks at first, then cheerily takes in teenage terror Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), glum butterball Henry (Spencer Breslin), and so-cute-you’ll-gag kindergartner Sarah (Abigail Breslin).
From Raising Helen’s early birthday-party dance scene to the sounds of Devo’s “Whip It” to a much later gushy zoo romp accompanied, naturally, by Simon & Garfunkel’s “At the Zoo,” Marshall fails miserably at injecting any fun into this turgid affair. The humor is painful (the best attempt being “Do you even know what vespers are?” “Some kind of scooter?”), the wacky developments often ridiculous (the waiter at a posh Manhattan restaurant reacting to Helen’s request that he help make her widdle girl happy: “You want me to sing to a stuffed hippo? I’ll take care of it!”). Even Helen’s love interest is dull: He’s “sexy man of God” Pastor Dan, the Lutheran principal of the kiddies’ new school (John Corbett, who’s blow-yer-brains-out-boring even when not shackled by a collar).
And because the script, adapted by Malcolm in the Middle vets Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, deals with death and the trials of parenting, there’s plenty of opportunity for treacle. You might be able to stomach the kids-in-the-closet scene after their parents’ funeral (“It smells like Mommy in here”), perhaps even seeing Sarah cry when she can’t remember how her mother taught her to tie her shoes (“Bunny ears! Yeah!” she brightens after Helen saves the day). But by the time Helen has to high-tail it from her job to Sarah’s school because she’s crying over her stupid shoes again, you’ll be wishing someone would just smack some sense into the kid already.
But discipline is as foreign to Helen as living in Queens and working at a car dealership—both of which she happily ends up doing after sleeping four to a bed gets cramped and she loses her job (which obviously means she can never work for another chic company again). Oh, the troubles this former woman-about-town has to endure! When Audrey starts getting out of hand, having parties in the apartment on school nights and ditching prom to hit a motel room with some dirtball, Helen’s problems multiply—not because she’s afraid she can’t control Audrey, but because she’s afraid Audrey will hate her.
Raising Helen provides zero relief from such oh-please moments, not even from ol’ reliable Cusack, who’s reduced to pouting while her nieces and nephew favor “fun” Helen and later yelling at Helen in the predictable “I’ve always been the responsible one!” kitchen battle. You’ll be thinking somebody needs protecting by the time you’re done watching this train wreck, but it won’t be the children you’re worried about. CP