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** Stars
(US 2000)

Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, James Frain, Stockard Channing

Directed by Matt Williams

Writing credits: Billie Letts (novel), Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel

20th Century Fox  *  120 minutes



  • One doe-eyed innocent heroine
  • One improbably pretty, but self-destructive, best friend/older sister
  • One colorfully eccentric older woman
  • One redneck cad
  • One studious, slightly awkward, too-good-to-be-true sensitive male
Place in rural Southern locale, surround with cliched situations, mix well.

Transfer to multiplex, wait for dollars to roll in.

WHERE THE HEART IS, a well-intentioned adaptation of a novel by Billie Letts, ought to make "trailer trash" rise up in arms against the L.A. folks who made this film, for this film is as insulting to southern, small-town folk as KEEPING THE FAITH is to Jewish women. For in Letts' rural south, the trailer trash are good, churchgoin' folk who pray both to thank God for the bounty they are about to receive, and to beg His forgiveness for the fornication they've committed (and intend to keep committing).

stranded.jpg - 16109 BytesEmerging from this milieu is Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), an exquisite creature with the high cheekbones and perfectly-plucked eyebrows of the nice Jewish girl from Long Island who portrays her -- a veritable Miss America compared to her slatternly compatriots. She is literally barefoot and pregnant by her musclebound, redneck, Ethan Hawke lookalike boyfriend, inevitably named Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno), and headed with him for California when he abandons her in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah. Oklahoma.

sister.jpg - 19248 BytesAlone and penniless, Novalee moves into the Wal-Mart, keeping careful track of everything she uses, categorized as "I owe Wal-Mart" in a fifty-cent spiral notebook. Along the way, she meets colorful characters with equally colorful names. Moses Whitecotton (Keith David), is a photographer/deus ex machina who exists for the sole purpose of promoting Kodak products and pointing Novalee towards her dream. "Sister" Husband (Stockard Channing, in the Kathy Bates role), is an alcoholic, eccentric, though warm-hearted nut who includes apologies for her fornication with the equally adorably named, and equally alcoholic Mr. Sprock, as part of before-meal grace, and who offers Novalee a home. The unfortunately named Forney (and the less I know of the origins of HIS name, the better) Hull is the town's resident intellectual/librarian, who cares for his Aunt Ada Doom of a sister in the Room Upstairs and who yearns after young Novalee. And Ashley Judd, phenomenally miscast as Lexie Coop, an adorably sassy dame with a knack for picking the wrong men, who ought to be arrested for child abuse for naming her children after snack foods.

Novalee gives birth in Aisle 5 of the Wal-Mart (a major trauma, since she is terrified of the number five; an odd phobia for someone who has never heard of Discordianism) after the camera pays loving tribute to the merchandise held therein. She miraculously just happens to find a professional-quality camera at a garage sale (a plot device that I would have thought utterly absurd, had I not once purchased no fewer than eight Steiff stuffed animals for $25 at a flea market), fulfills her Career Dream, and inevitably finds The Strength Within, Learns Something About Love, and triumphs over adversity. Meanwhile, the guy who ditched her meets up with an appropriately gruesome fate, and is arguably redeemed by Novalee's Power of Forgiveness.

I certainly hope that novelist Billie Letts knows of what she speaks in her novel, because if she doesn't, the WHERE THE HEART IS script qualifies as the kind of hackneyed, not-an-original-moment crud that keeps being served up to the subset of American women who worship at the Altar of the Almighty Oprah, and who think Celine Dion is the greatest musical artist of all time. It's movies like this that makes swill like THE WATERBOY necessary, if only to cut the treacle and give the guys flicks for which to trade.

However, that said, I didn't loathe WHERE THE HEART IS as much as I've loathed other films in this genre, most notably TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, which fits snugly in my own personal Top Five Worst Movies of All Time. My tolerance for this film is largely due to the strength of its surprisingly strong cast. In fact, the mystery of this film is at what party Ganz and Mandel spiked the kool-aid enough to convince a veritable stable of top actors to sign on to this swill.

beaten.jpg - 13724 BytesNatalie Portman, at age 18 required for the first time to carry a film on her shoulders, is competent enough as Novalee, and occasionally shows flashes of the terrific actress she is, even if she does strikingly resemble Russian figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva at times. If there's one fault to her characterization, it's in not rebelling against the hairstylists and makeup artists who insisted on capitalizing on her Audrey Hepburn looks so that she appears to have stepped off a bus from Madison & 53rd right into Sequoyah, Oklahoma. A similar overglamorization characterizes Ashley Judd's Lexie. This is clearly the Dolly Parton Trashmouth Best Friend role, and while Judd is utterly charming and even a bit self-mocking, the idea that these two dames, with their perfect figures and smoothly-applied eyeliner, "can't afford to be picky" about men is more of a stretch than I can handle.

In the supporting roles, the criminally underworked Stockard Channing has a fine old time as the warm, lusty, but still a good Christian "Sister" Husband, and Sally Field, in a brief role as Novalee's ne'er-do-well mother, nearly steals the picture. Joan Cusack, as a music industry manager in a completely useless subplot, tries mightily, repeating her smart-aleck businesswoman characterization from GROSSE POINTE BLANK, but seems to have stopped into the set only briefly as a lark while her kids went to day camp.

willyjack.jpg - 16024 BytesAs for the male leads, relative newcomer Dylan Bruno preens and swaggers nicely as boyfriend/cad Willy Jack, a man utterly devoid of intellect, whose power exists solely between his legs but who can't deal with the result. Bruno looks like the love child of Ethan Hawke and Kevin Dillon, and at times I could have sworn that Brendan Sexton III's Tom Nissen had just walked in from the set of BOYS DON'T CRY.

British actor James Frain, most notably seen with a fake Spanish accent conspiring wickedly against Cate Blanchett in ELIZABETH and cheating on Emily Watson in HILARY AND JACKIE, manages to turn the female fantasy and unfortunately-named Forney into a real character. Eschewing the broad, flat exaggerated Midwestern twang usually adopted by British actors trying to sound American, Frain spends the first hour of the film looking as if he wonders why he ever took this role, until he's finally allowed to tell the audience what this erudite man is doing plunked down in Backwater, USA. Frain does the Tall, Thin and Tortured bit beautifully after that, and if he's far too old for the nubile Portman, his earnest manner, lash-fringed baby blues and Byronic hair give him an appeal far more subtle than that smoldering British hottie-of-the-moment, Joseph Fiennes.

These self-consciously eccentric characters make parts of WHERE THE HEART IS seem more like a Michael Moore TV NATION sketch, or at the very least, outtakes from director Matt Williams' previous endeavor, the white-trash sitcom ROSEANNE. That Williams is a television director is perfectly obvious, because scenes are abruptly cut as if to allow for commercial breaks, and a strange time warp, in which five years pass but only children grow older, fatally affects the pacing of the film. Ganz and Mandel ought to know better, though, having produced far better, less self-consciously adorable character-driven films, most notably A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN.

The bottom line on WHERE THE HEART IS, is this: If you love "chick flicks," you'll love this film. If you cry every time Julia Roberts dies in STEEL MAGNOLIAS, you'll love this film. If you think Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger's relationship in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT was the most true-to-life you've ever seen, you'll love this film. However, if you want convincing story and characterizations, you'll want to keep looking.

WHERE THE HEART IS official site

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Review text copyright © 2000 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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