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Where the Schmaltz Is

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2000


    'Where the Heart Is' Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd endure tragedy after tragedy in a film that's missing some heart. (20th Century Fox)
Not 10 minutes into "Where the Heart Is," Natalie Portman (radiantly slumming as the white trash heroine Novalee Nation) sits barefoot and pregnant in the parking lot of an Oklahoma Wal-Mart, licking the first of what will become a series of wounds. Her mullet-headed boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) has just unceremoniously dumped her while the two were fleeing the trailer parks of Tennessee for the promised land of California.

In the background the words "Satisfaction Guaranteed" can be glimpsed on the Wal-Mart store in what is either a) the film's only touch of irony, or b) a harbinger of the inevitable happy ending. Either way, it's less reassuring than intended – not to mention a false promise on the part of the filmmakers, who so mistrust their audience that they force-feed it course after course of Southern Gothic triumph-over-tragedy, barely giving us time to savor, let alone swallow, the parade of melodramatic plot turns.

And what is with this crazy quilt of kooky names?

When Novalee's baby "Americus" is born (on the fifth of July no less, and in the Wal-Mart where, as it turns out, mommy-to-be has taken up surreptitious residence), the kindly stranger and prospective love interest (James Frain) who jumps through a plate-glass window to deliver her is called "Forney Hull." The maternity nurse (Ashley Judd) who befriends Novalee goes by "Lexie Coop" and she's got a brood dubbed "Brownie," "Praline" and "Baby Ruth" (to name but a few of her snack food-inspired young'uns). Later, when it becomes apparent that poor Novalee has nowhere to stay, the lovably eccentric couple (Stockard Channing and Richard Jones) who take her in are introduced as "Sister Husband" and "Mr. Sprock." And let's not forget "Moses Whitecotten," the wise old black photographer (Keith David) who teaches Novalee to become an artist.

Sure, sure, I know there must be thousands of real live folks running around Dixie with such unlikely names, but do they all live in the same doggone town? Apparently Sequoia, Okla. (the fictional setting of Billie Letts's best-selling novel, on which the film is based), is a lot like Chickapenn Parish, La., the site of "Steel Magnolias" and home to characters named Ouiser, M'Lynn, Truvy and Spud.

And that superficial resemblance is not the only similarity to the far better "Magnolias." Not only does it have Sally Field doing a cameo as Novalee's trampy Mama Lil, but the overly literary "Heart" tries to put your tear ducts in a headlock with a litany of catastrophes not normally found in nature (or the Book of Job). Let's see, just off the top of my head, there's a kidnapping, a tornado out of "The Wizard of Oz," an incidence of child sexual abuse and, oh yes, a man getting his legs run over by a freight train.

That's all well and good, except that screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (veterans of such Ron Howard films as "Night Shift," "Splash" and "EdTV") have fashioned a story that goes through the motions of the book while skimming the emotions. Portman, Judd and Channing do their level best to hide their movie-star allure under hick shtick and good-ole-gal accents, but it never entirely convinces.

That's mainly because producer and first-time director Matt Williams (credited with creating and executive-producing such TV successes as "Home Improvement" and "Roseanne") is so worried about not leaving out one single, essential plot point of the episodic, sentimental novel (an Oprah's Book Club selection, natch) that he overlooks precisely what it is that makes literature tick: its beating, human heart.

WHERE THE HEART IS (PG-13, 120 minutes) – Contains a smattering of vulgar language, gauzy lovemaking, discussion of sexuality and sexual abuse and an intense scene of a child in jeopardy.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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