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Playing House 

Two things immediately come to mind when sitting down to review this film: The poster, showing Kate Hudson lying down, her little tush up in the air, and looking oh-so-perky, has absolutely nothing to do with what goes on in the movie. And, more importantly, the advance screening I attended was filled with nuns -- habits and all. Beyond the fact that a side plot has John Corbett playing a handsome pastor in the film, I have no idea why they were all invited.

But it did make for an interesting viewing experience, especially during moments that might've made the sisters a little squeamish. The words "ass," "damn," and "bitch" are worked into the dialogue. One young character has the line: "We are in deep sh**." An adult character talks about "ripping" someone "a new one."

Now these words normally would fly right by me, but there were all those nuns! For the record, they seemed to enjoy it all, with many of them giggling at the "naughty" parts.

Unfortunately, they were among the few people enjoying what was supposed to be a light, heartwarming comedy, but was in reality a sometimes funny, cliche-ridden film filled with sugar-shock-quality sappiness.

Helen (Kate Hudson) feels like the toast of New York. She has a great gig as a kind of glorified assistant to the big boss (Helen Mirren in a flat, thankless role) at a modeling agency, and knows the name of every doorman at every club for a busy and glitzy nightlife. She's probably a nice person, but is totally full of her own self-importance.

Actually, we know she has a nice side once she's seen among family at a birthday party for her oldest sister, Lindsay (Felicity Huffman). At the party, Helen is the center of attention, much to the consternation of older sister Jenny (Joan Cusack), who is very pregnant.

But not long after, tragedy strikes, and Lindsay and her husband are killed. To everyone's shock -- including Helen, Jenny, and Lindsay's three orphaned children -- the will says the kids are going to free-willed Helen, not mom-minded Jenny.

"What?" says Helen. "What?" says Jenny. "Are you sure?" ask the kids. Oldest daughter Audrey just knows it won't work, but soon enough, Helen and her new brood are all living in her Manhattan apartment, and sleeping in one bed. And soon after, they're in a larger, more affordable place in Queens.

When it's time to find a new school for the kids, Helen, who's determined to make this whole new lifestyle work, casually says to herself, "God help me." (All the nuns sat up at that point.) Next, when Helen and charges happen upon a Lutheran school with Pastor Dan (Corbett) as the principal, the sisters all noticeably leaned forward.

From that point on, the film switches into sugary gear, but without much originality attached. With no babysitter help and a demanding boss on her back, Helen must cart the kids to an important fashion show. Slapstick disaster ensues, Helen loses her job, Helen freaks out, Jenny thinks she should get the kids because Helen can't handle it.

This all gets pretty tired, pretty fast. There's an interesting bit about ever-maturing Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) trying to hook up with a trouble-making upstart named BZ (Michael Esparza) at school. But even when things look like they're getting a little racy, and there's a chase to break things up at a sleazy motel room, it all plummets into a nice, safe story angle.

For no other reason than the fact that Hector Elizondo is a longtime pal of director Garry Marshall, Elizondo shows up as a car dealer who gives Helen a break with a new job. Elizondo is good - and funny - in the part. He always is; he's just not needed here.

Hudson, too, is good, but she can't do much with the material given to her. And the script leans far too much toward implausibility: She seems always to know exactly what to say to the kids -- as if she had been a mom all along. Cusack, usually terrific, has unfortunately been asked to overdo it, to practically mug for the camera and over-enunciate everything she says. There's even an unfortunate use of a Simon & amp; Garfunkel song during the sequence when Helen and the kids go to the zoo and Pastor Dan performs a blessing over the animals.

And what are we to make of the suggestion that there's going to be some romance between Helen and the pastor? Do we really need to go there in this film? I mean, there's already so much padding, it runs a full two hours. A story this skimpy deserves no more than 90 minutes.

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