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With: Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, Joan Cusack, James Frain, Dylan Bruno, Keith David, Sally Field, Richard Jones, Ray Prewitt
Written by: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, based on a novel by Billie Letts
Directed by: Matt Williams
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense thematic material, language and sexual content
Running Time: 118
Date: 04/28/2000

Where the Heart Is (2000)

1 Star (out of 4)

Certainly Not Here

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new weepie/comedy "Where the Heart Is" features a fine lineup of actresses, and most of them do well despite the purely awful, turgid, and phony material. Sometimes it's worth it to go to a movie to see good acting, but not this time. I'd recommend staying home and cleaning cobwebs instead. Natalie Portman stars as the pregnant 17-year-old Novalee Nation who is dumped off at Wal-Mart by her evil, stupid redneck boyfriend (Dylan Bruno). She lives in Wal-Mart until it's time to have the baby, and is rescued by an intelligent librarian (James Frain). She is then taken in by Stockard Channing and goes about her life. All kinds of horrible/wonderful things happen to her, and they're all telegraphed and neatly packaged, and everything always turns out okay.

"Where the Heart Is" was written by the 20-year veteran team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, whose best films to date are Splash (1984) and City Slickers (1991). Lately, they've treated us to the likes of Multiplicity (1996), Father's Day (1997), and Edtv (1999). (This ain't Chinatown, folks.) Where the Heart Is is their first weepie (if you don't count the drippy parts of their awful Parenthood from 1989) and they just don't have a knack for it. They try to smash together comedy and tragedy, and you can hear the gears grinding as they switch. On top of which, the comedy is not funny and the tragedy is not true. The stupidest of all the tragedies comes when the characters are getting ready to wait out a tornado in the storm cellar. Channing chooses that particular moment to deliver a bowl of potato soup to a sick neighbor. She turns, winking and says, "I'll be right back." Guess what happens. (Didn't these people see Scream?) Sally Field appears in one scene as Portman's mother, who apparently drives hundreds of miles on the off-chance that she can steal $500 from her and never be seen again. The stupid redneck boyfriend goes to jail, becomes a country music recording star, gets drunk and falls down on some railroad tracks. Guess what happens. There's even a moment when Portman gets an urgent call from her best friend's (Ashley Judd's) kids. She rushes over, while the camera shakes all over, letting us know that something is wrong.

There's all kinds of man-hatred in this movie. Most of the men are evil, stupid, and vicious. But, the movie does nothing to make it a coherent theme. Most of these evil men aren't even shown onscreen, as if the sight of them would be too upsetting to us. Where the Heart Is is all surface. There's not a single moment in over 2 hours that succeeds, or even tries, to dig below to some real human emotion. Every line of dialogue is straight from some glossy country music song. Two characters can't even kiss without some dumb song coming up over it. And the movie's idea of character development is that Portman's character doesn't like the number five. And, yes, whenever the number five comes up something bad happens. The best thing in the movie is Joan Cusack, who plays the evil redneck's country music agent. She gets to play tough-as-nails and scream and kick him around, which gave me a little pleasure in this otherwise painful exercise. Portman and Judd likewise turn in the very best performances possible under the circumstances. It proves they have presence and skill that might be used for a better movie (they could even play sisters -- they look a little alike).

The art of the weepie is nearly dead. The masters were people like Douglas Sirk and John M. Stahl with movies like Written on the Wind (1959) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Pedro Almodovar is perhaps the only contemporary filmmaker who has it down. His recent All About My Mother is an excellent weepie. But Where the Heart Is is so bad it caused me physical pain. Those involved should be exported and forced to make movies in Siberia.

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