"Raising Helen" dramatizes an interesting therapeutic theory: children as a self-help mechanism for adults.

It begins by evoking the glamorous life of a young woman who lives happily if callowly in a cocoon of utter fabulousness. It should never end. But it does. When her square sis gets whacked in an accident, she inherits the three kids. And you know what? They help her grow up!

As a veteran of this program, I can say it absolutely works. Why, I was originally vain and self-centered, narcissistic and shallow. But then my two darling kids Suzie and, uh, the other one came along, and they helped me develop the deep humanity and wisdom I'm now so widely known and loved for. They really helped a lot. I do wonder whatever became of them.

Anyhow, Helen is played by Kate Hudson, easily the best thing in the movie. It's hard to frown upon her, even when the material seems thin and spun out for too long. She immediately took my heart hostage with that crinkly smile and the utter decency she conveys, and so I want to please her somehow. Too bad the movie won't let me.

Hudson's Helen Harris is introduced as this season's way-downtown It Girl, with a funky, nifty apartment, a job as gal Friday to a powerful model agency owner (Helen Mirren, camping it up), a first-name relationship with every club doorman in TriBeCa and a love life that seems restricted to guys whose abs look like rippled Circassian walnut. She even has a loving extended family back in Jersey, where she goes for a little R&R when the fast life gets her down.

Out in the 'burbs, we meet her sisters, the somewhat rigid Jenny (Joan Cusack), a supermom and control freak; and Lindsay (Felicity Huffman), a kind of halfway combo of Jenny and Helen. Jenny has I don't know how many kids -- who can tell them apart? I mean, really -- and Lindsay, it turns out, has three. Cue the car crash.

Weepy-weepy, sniffle-and-slurpy. You get the point. The Big Twist: In a suspiciously convenient pre-mortem letter, the late Lindsay leaves guardianship of her three to wild 'n' free Helen, not super-duper Miss Perfect Jenny. This sets up a minor conflict between disappointed Jenny and flabbergasted, unprepared Helen. However, that's not really the subject proper of "Raising Helen."

Basically the film is constructed to bring the It Girl down out of the clouds, and down from the upper reaches of the economic scale. One feels somebody's urge to punish the poor thing, who, after all, has done nothing wrong except choose to live a life of her own. It's not her fault she's the cute blonde one everybody likes the best. Anyhow, the kids soon cost Helen her swank job and she ends up in the uncool blue-collar borough of Queens, working in a used-car lot, having placed her three children in a Lutheran school.

Somebody likes the Lutherans a lot. This movie probably represents more publicity for them than they've had since the original angry white man nailed his screed to the church door a few centuries back, and it's certainly the most generous portrayal of the positive force of faith in everyday life that we've had in what also seems like a few centuries. In fact, so fiercely does it mingle love and faith that the school principal, Pastor Dan (John Corbett, basically a nice-guy TV type), becomes Helen's love object, once the biz about the "vows" of the Lutheran clergy are clarified in the inevitable comic scene.

You can see where this one is going; what you can't possibly see is how programmatically it goes there. The director, Garry Marshall, has a comedy pedigree dating all the way back to "Laverne and Shirley"; his high-water mark was certainly "Pretty Woman." In this one, he seems to be directing from an oxygen tent. Get this guy a transfusion, quick.

In fact, you are likely to encounter more surprises on the way to the bathroom each morning than you do in this film. Yes, the kids (Hayden Panettiere, Spencer and Abigail Breslin) are adorable; yes, Pastor Dan is a hunk; yes, the initially uptight Jenny gets a chance to redeem herself with a withering blast of pure mommy rage at a young man who sought to take advantage; and, yes, Helen makes peace with her new life and learns that to raise kids, they don't have to like you every single second of their lives.

Raising Helen (119 endless minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo.

Kate Hudson as an aunt suddenly saddled with a family (Hayden Panettiere and Abigail and Spencer Breslin). Helen (Kate Hudson) falls for school principal Pastor Dan (John Corbett).