IF "RAISING HELEN" feels stale already, and it does, that's because it's only the latest iteration of the theme of the hollow, self-important socialite made whole (and humbled) by the love of a child. Part of the recent trendlet of self-improvement-through-parenting comedies, it's a pale imitation of the sterling "About a Boy," with more in common with such soggy fare as Kevin Smith's "Jersey Girl" and, before that, "Uptown Girls," both of which abused the trope of the grown-up baby forced to care for a minor child as a vehicle for personal growth.

Here, writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and director Garry Marshall up the ante, handing glamorous single gal Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) not one, not two, but three kids when Helen's older sister, Lindsay (Felicity Huffman), and Lindsay's husband (Sean O'Bryan) die suddenly. This time around, there's a twist: A far more rational choice would have been Helen's other sister, Jenny (Joan Cusack, so dowdy it's painful), who not only has children of her own and lives in bucolic New Jersey, but desperately wants to raise the trio of traumatized orphans (Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin and Abigail Breslin). Lindsay, however, in her infinite wisdom (not to mention her will), just knew that granting custody of three growing children to a woman who is neither financially nor emotionally ready to handle them would be the smartest decision in the world -- at least as far as Helen is concerned.

That's because, "About a Boy" excepted, these things never have much to do with the children, who are little more than implausible dramatic -- or, rather, comedic -- foils. Think about it. If you were deciding which of your siblings to give your kids to in the event of your death, would you grant custody to the responsible but boring one or to the irresponsible but fun one, on a hunch that the rigors of parenthood might, just might, make an adult out of her someday?

Yeah, right. You'd go with the boring one, in a heartbeat.

That's only the first of many credulity-stretching touches, not the least of which is the fact that Helen is somehow able to support three crumb-snatchers on the salary of a receptionist at a used-car dealership, having lost her high-paying job at the tony but family-unfriendly modeling agency where she was a rising star.

Good thing there's a free Lutheran school in the neighborhood in Queens that Helen is forced to move into. (That's funny -- last I checked, private schools charged tuition.) Oh well, if it weren't for that school, Helen would never meet Pastor Dan (John Corbett), the safe but sexy man of the cloth who helps Helen cope with the fact that the eldest of her three young charges (Panettiere as a slightly trampy teen) is hanging out with a very wrong crowd. Suspension of disbelief is not, however, "Raising Helen's" main problem. Nor is it over-familiarity. Rather, it's a question of tone, which jumps back and forth between airy-fairy romantic comedy and leaden family drama with the alacrity of a manic-depressive. Like Helen herself, "Raising Helen" is a featherweight trying to do some heavy lifting, but after all the grunting and groaning, the metal, alas, never comes off the mat.

RAISING HELEN (PG-13, 119 minutes) -- Contains some bad language and thematic material related to the death of parents and teenage sexuality. Area theaters.

From single gal to single mom: Carefree Helen (Kate Hudson), left, must care for her sister's kids, including Sarah (Abigail Breslin).