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Where the Heart Is

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 28 April 2000

Directed by Matt Williams. 

Starring Natalie Portman, 
Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd, 
Keith David, Dylan Bruno, 
James Frain, Richard Jones 
and Joan Cusack.

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel,
based on the novel by Billie Letts.

"AH YEW REDDEE, NOVALEE?!" hollers Willie Jack (Dylan Bruno), Novalee's skunk-of-a-boyfriend, at the beginning of Where the Heart Is, and we immediately know that we are in that strange, weird country that only seems to exist in the movies, where people say "yes" when they mean "you," and "ah" when they mean "are" or "I." On command, out comes Natalie Portman as Novalee Nation, looking like she hasn't had a bath in a month, wearing a little slip of a dress that barely conceals the fact that she is about six to nine months pregnant, and hops into Willie Jack's wreak of a car, heading for who-knows-where.

After a bit, Novalee goes to sleep and, when she wakes up, finds that she's lost her house slippers when they fell through the hole in the floor of Willie Jack's car. Suddenly, she jumps up and says, "Oh, look, there's a WalMart! I gotta go to the bathroom!" To which Willie Jack pulls off the highway, Novalee goes in and uses the facilities and buys a pair of new house slippers, in that order, and comes back out and finds that Willie Jack is gone, gone, gone. The thought of asking anyone for help doesn't appear to enter her mind. So, she lives there at the WalMart. For three months.

This wouldn't be so hard to take if it weren't for the fact that the movie relentlessly plugs WalMart during its entire first hour. When people aren't dropping references to it in conversation, there are scenes set in the store, or there's an establishing shot where the storefront and sign are lovingly placed within view. When Novalee gives birth, in aisle six of the store, the child is promptly christened "the WalMart baby." She even gets $500 from the president of the store and a job in any WalMart in the country! It's as if WalMart were the Great and Powerful Oz, the Emerald City towards which all of Oklahoma is drawn. (and we don't even find out that the story is taking place in Oklahoma until over an hour into the picture.) It is also enough so that when the movie moves on to other matters and other places in the second half, just the mere mention of "WalMart" is enough to send one into a spasmic groan. (Except for the end, but you'll have to find that out for yourself.)

While acting like Destiny's Tot, Novalee bumps into an assortment of people. There's Sister Husband (Stockard Channing, looking very tanned), who, as the town's Welcome Woman, gives Novalee a potted buckeye tree, and a basket of goodies that includes an appointment book that's already been written in. Later, we find out that when she says-grace at the dinner table, she always asks the Lord's forgiveness for the "fornication" which she and her companion, Mr. Sprock (Leonard Jones), have just committed, and where they committed it. Lexie (Ashley Judd) has no husband but a whole passel of kids, all of whom have been named after snack foods (Brownie, Praline, Baby Ruth). Then there's Forney (James Frain), the town librarian, who has a relative moaning and confined, out of sight, upstairs, like in H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror. The moment Novalee pulls off the stocking cap he wears all the time and reveals his handsome curly hair underneath, you know they're going to fall in love.

The screenplay, based on Billie Letts' novel, was written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and they don't seem to have quite bounced-back from their last attempt at writing about their idea of the Common People in Ed TV. A lot of the dialogue is stupefyingly bad, and, unfortunately, unrepeatable. I can recount the moment where a waitress tells Novalee, "I hope you're not hungry, because it's Tuesday." And there's a moment where Sally Field, putting in a twitchy, irritating cameo as Novalee's neurotic mother, asks if her daughter got pregnant by "one of those artificial spermator things." The story leaps from one point to another, like an Alpine goat, leaving great, gaping holes in its wake. Characters disappear for long stretches of time (or permanently, as in the tornado scene), and story elements are introduced -- like Novalee's baby being kidnapped -- which never amount to anything (she gets the baby back, it was simply stashed nearby, safe and sound, outdoors).

There are seemingly pointless cutaways to Willie Jack's journey through life without Novalee, until they're revealed to show how he has squandered the opportunities that have presented themselves to him, while Novalee has taken advantage of the ones presented to her, making fast friends, becoming responsible, finding love, and turning into a professional photographer. She and Willie Jack have a bittersweet reunion near the end, after he has hit rock bottom (and fallen in front of an oncoming train), and it's hard to discern any purposeful reason for the scene except for us to gloat over Willie Jack as if he were a wounded animal.

While I can understand that there are not a whole lot of movies being made right now that are interested in women and women's lives, I still have to wonder what Natalie Portman is doing in this film. Did it look better on the page? When she isn't presented as a comical grotesque, she's more an Example of Self-Improvement than a fully-conceived character. As Novalee turns more and more into her own person, Portman is mostly confined to either giving self-confident expressions that also look sultry (and if she's thinking about becoming hell-bent on turning herself into a sex symbol, I offer two words of caution: Ellen Barkin), or she folds her arms and looks steely and determined. Natalie Portman is no fun to watch when she's being high-minded and noble.

Except for some of the performances -- Stockard Channing does wonders with what is otherwise an unplayable part; Ashley Judd does a fine job making her way through a clumsily-presented scene relating an instance of domestic violence; Joan Cusack does a fantastic job conveying the character of a rummy, yet hard-as-nails, talent agent in a tiny amount of screen time; and James Frain brings a shambling, courtly charm to his role that is very ingratiating -- this picture may very well become a kitsch classic in years to come, and may do more towards inducing people never to go anywhere near anything that says "WalMart" on it ever again than anything else imaginable. 

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