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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Where the Heart Is (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Matt Williams
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Dylan Bruno, James Frain, Stockard Channing, Richard Jones, Joan Cusack, Sally Field, Keith David.
2000 – 118 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 27, 2000.

Director Matt Williams' "Where the Heart Is" is such a well-meaning, brightly-acted slice-of-life that it's too bad more care wasn't given to the episodic, uneven screenplay, by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Moving with hasty rapidity through a five-year time period, with almost every following scene set a few weeks, or months, or even a whole year, later, the film never garners enough emotional interest in its characters because they always seem to be getting vigorously wrung through the motions. If anything, "Where the Heart Is" does have a big heart, but everything feels closely scripted, with only a few fleeting scenes boosting a human naturalism that desperately was needed throughout.

Based on the 1996 novel by Billie Letts that gained popularity when it was chosen as Oprah Winfrey's Book of the Month, "Where the Heart Is" begins as we meet pregnant 17-year-old Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), who is fleeing her trailer park existence in Tennessee with her boyfriend, Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno). Stopping off at an Oklahoma-based WalMart to go to the bathroom and buy a pair of new shoes (her old ones fell through the hole in the floor of Willy's busted-up jalopy), Novalee is devastated to discover that he has left her stranded there when she gets back to the parking lot, with no trace of him or the car in sight. With literally no money or a home to go to, Novalee takes up shelter in WalMart, hiding in the bathroom each night as it closes down. Then she gives birth to the baby one late night in the store, and briefly becomes a highly publicized celebrity, with her daughter, whom she has given the sturdy name of Americus, being called the "WalMart Baby."

Novalee is quickly given a home by the kindly Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), and WalMart hands her a job working for them. She also makes friends with unlucky-in-love Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), who has four kids, each with a different father. All of this takes place within the opening half-hour, with the remaining 90 minutes light on plot, but heavy on tragedy and bad things happening, as Novalee may now have a roof over her head, but still has a life that isn't endlessly filled with wine and roses.

Surprisingly, some of the most entertaining scenes are in the subplot involving Willy Jack Pickens, who the film occasionally alternates back to after he abandons Novalee at the WalMart. Following a brief jail term for picking up a minor in his car, Willy, who turns out to be a talented country singer, heads to Nashville, where he is hired as a client by disgruntled agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), and quickly is given the more alluring name of Billy Shadow.

As Willy, Dylan Bruno (1999's "The Rage: Carrie 2") is superbly cast and a real find, easily holding his own in a minor storyline that otherwise goes nowhere and is pointless to the picture as a whole. In yet another memorable and funny performance, her best since her Oscar-nominated turn in 1997's "In and Out," Joan Cusack has loads of fun as the matter-of-fact Ruth Meyers, who is clearly fed up with her profession as a country music agent, but keeps right on chugging. Unfortunately, very little comes of the notable amount of time spent on this side story, save for a climactic reunion between Novalee and Willy, and Ruth abruptly disappears completely.

The majority of "Where the Heart Is" focuses on Novalee Nation, and the trials and tribulations she must go through to seek full happiness. Seemingly destined to never break out of her trailer trash upbringing, Novalee nonetheless has aspirations to become a professional photographer, as well as being the kind of caring parent that her own money-grubbing mother (Sally Field) never was. Natalie Portman has proven time and time again what a sparkling talent she is as an actress, and in her first adult role, this performance is no exception. Her character of Novalee, however, is not nearly as complex as her roles in 1999's "Anywhere But Here" or 1996's "Beautiful Girls," so it isn't quite as showy, despite equipping herself remarkably.

Best of all is Ashley Judd, whose character of Lexie Coop, a woman who strives for joy and a happy marriage and everything in between, but can't seem to find a truly compassionate and loving man to share her life with, may be underdeveloped, but is given most of the only genuinely honest scenes. A particularly heartbreaking one comes near the end that is less the work of a Hollywood performer, and more the work of a true-born actor, something that is rarely seen nowadays. Rounding out the cast are Stockard Channing, as the infinitely generous Sister Husband, and James Frain, as the shy, gentle Forney, a librarian caring for his alcoholic sister, who grows to fall deeply in love with Novalee, despite her only ever viewing him as a good friend.

Where "Where the Heart Is" makes its fatal mistake is in not allowing the characters to naturally progress throughout the film without major calamities popping up in nearly every scene. From tornadoes, to kidnappings, to abuse, to pedophilia, few subjects are left unturned by screenwriters Lowell and Ganz, and because of this, the proceedings come off as disjointed at almost every turn. While not exactly melodramatic, the emotions within are surely manipulative, not helped much by Mason Daring's needlessly syrupy music score. "Where the Heart Is" has its eclectic and talented cast in place, but the screenplay they are given to work with is clunky and below their intelligence level. They deserve better.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman