Where the Heart Is
Directed by Matt Williams
Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

Starring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd


Where the Heart Is

There's a certain kind of film that because of its endless plot convolutions and repeatedly missed moments of contact between its protagonists could only have come from an overstuffed novel, since no screenwriter in his or her right mind would ever have loaded the script up with so much dead wood; and "Where the Heart Is," from the novel by Billie Letts, is the perfect example. I'm not saying that NO well-stuffed novel could ever make a great film. "Great Expectations," "Pride and Prejudice," "Wuthering Heights," and "Howard's End" come to mind, and there are many more. But in general, if there were to be a rule about adaptations, it's the short story or novella that is best translated into film, if for no other reason than that too much stuffing spoils the bird.

And I wish a grownup had stepped in here, because in "Where the Heart Is" we have an overstuffed, overlong film that might have been a little gem if only someone had taken a firm grip on its writers (Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who've done much better work, including "City Slickers" and "A League of Their Own") and calmed them down.

"Where the Heart Is" takes Novalee Nation (the luscious Natalie Portman, no longer wearing the red canker sore on her lower lip that she carried as Queen Amidala) from her Tennesee trailer home, pregnant by her worthless boyfriend and abandoned by him at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart, and follows her through the next five years of her life. And what a life! She makes a home for herself inside the Wal-Mart, which seems to be the only big-box store without a night watchman, her baby is born on Aisle 6 (Novalee has a phobia about the number five), and delivered by Forney, the local librarian (James Frain), whom she gets a distant crush on, while he falls in love with her but she rejects because she's not worthy of him, but he goes back to finish up college at Bowdoin when she does, but then she -- okay, you see what I mean.

And there's more. There's Lexie (Ashley Judd), single mother of children named after candy treats, like Baby Ruth, Praline, and Brownie, who also makes bad choices in men. And Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) and Moses Whitecotton (Keith David). This town should be famous for its residents' choice of names. How do good actors get involved in this kind of mess? The simple answer is bad agents. What were they thinking?

We're still not off the hook. There's the comes-and-goes subplot in which the old boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) goes to jail, becomes a country singer with a tough manager (Joan Cusack, of all people, and in her three scenes she's the best thing in the film), gets his comeuppance, and, well, you don't want to know.

Are we done yet? Did I mention the tornado that takes Sister Husband away? Or the pedophile Lexie falls for? Or Novalee becoming a professional photographer under the tutelage of Moses? I didn't? What's the matter with me?    

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