by Greg Muskewitz
Love can make us all do some crazy things. It can also make us do some ridiculously stupid things. As Diana Ross and the Supremes sang, "You can’t hurry love, no, you just have to wait…just give it time, no matter how long it takes." It’s a rule you must abide by. Sometimes, like Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), you spend too much time looking in the wrong place.Novalee is pregnant trailer trash with an equally greasy boyfriend. They set out to leave their southern town to make it together. But he abandons her (for an under-aged girl –but he gets busted for it) at a Wal-Mart. With no place to go, at night she hides away and sleeps in a camp-tent display and carefully keeps track of anything she uses. By day, she’s out reading books and keeping busy. One night, she goes into labor and is saved by Forney (James Frain) who delivers the baby and gets her to a hospital.
"The quirky humor saves it from the clichés."
Instantly, Novalee is all over the news and her daughter, Americus, is dubbed the Wal-Mart Baby. They’re taken in by an eccentric couple (the wife is Stockard Channing) as Novalee’s friendship with a nurse, Lexie (Ashley Judd) grows. Lots of tragedy ensues along the way; Novalee believes in superstition, and the number five brings her horrible luck; her mother (Sally Field), who long ago left, shows up and takes off with Novalee’s money; the baby is kidnapped, et al. This is a theme which happens to repeat itself several times over the course of the movie.
"Where the Heart Is" (not to be mistaken with "Where the Money Is," although I’m sure there’s more symbolic similarities between the two that we’d care to admit), is a major chick flick, or to be more exact, for the most part, an anti-guy flick. Taken from one of those soapy/sappy novels, it’s a strange piece of work. First of all, the movie takes place over five years, and more often than not, until the time jump has been confirmed verbally, you can’t tell that there was a succession of time. The beginning is rushed and developments seem superficial; to add to the long running time (which felt longer because of the time jumps), it also felt like big narrative chunks were missing. There was too much summarizing of events, and on top of that, simply too many events to jam pack into a two-hour movie. A better title might have been "Novalee versus the World," because from beginning to end, she was faced with a preposterous amount of disasters –heck, we even get a scene right out of "Twister!"
There were plenty of such clichés, but an equal amount of quirky humor –which serves as its savior. An example of that would be Lexie, who has an arm load of kids (all named after snack foods: Brownie, Cookie, Cup Cake, etc.), but no husband. Each time she gets with a guy (even if he claims to shoot "blanks") she ends up pregnant. "Where the Heart Is" is for the most part, but not completely, against guys. They’re dirty scumbags, bastards and baby-makers. Novalee learns quickly after she’s dumped by another guy for a sexual encounter (this is post-baby) that she needs to watch out for herself.
There’s a silly subplot where, once Novalee’s ex gets out of jail, he goes on to pursue a singing career. But the subplot is inept and a waste of time. Just an additional tack-on to the running time.
A lot of the story was glossed over and played out for the effectiveness of (or catering to) the audience. Yet that’s what brought it the breezy, happy-go-lucky charm. The acting of the three major leads: Portman, Judd and Frain, were all very nicely captured. Judd, always with a penchant for her affability, continues the trend here (though I can’t completely forgive her for "Eye of the Beholder"). And Frain, the anti-stud, is equally acceptable, though maybe not as embraceable. Channing is genuine, and Joan Cusack has an amusing turn as a dyspeptic music contractor.
Alas, we’re left with Portman, giving and talented an actress as she be. It is so hard to accept her as this proposed "trailer trash," but even so, she cleans up so well. Portman’s deportment was cool, stealthy, and believable, and for as attractive as she is (including how cute she was while pregnant), it’s equally matched and backed up by talent. Despite the anti-guy message, one aspect I did appreciate was that the girls were capable of doing anything too. Novalee’s indomitability and strength not to acquiesce was strongly supported and needs to be seen. She outclasses this. Portman may give it her all, but overall, the project isn’t up to par with what she offers.Final Verdict: B-.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=3867&reviewer=172
originally posted: 12/13/00 17:25:02