Where the Heart Is 

Directed by Matt Williams

You're just going to have to accept that Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd are far too glamorous for the roles they inhabit in Where the Heart Is. It's an issue that probably won't hurt the film's reception: Remember Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias? Your average moviegoer loves movie stars and wants to see a story he or she can relate to. If the two can reasonably mesh, even if the resulting product doesn't quite resemble reality, who's gonna complain? Big studio movies are escapism for most people to begin with. So you don't know any single mother of five on this planet who looks like Ashley Judd. You probably don't know any cops who look like Mel Gibson, either.

Where the Heart Is is the latest film adaptation of an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed novel from author Billie Letts, and as such will have a built-in following: The movie tie-in novelization even features discussion questions at the end for the reader and his or her fellow Oprah-ites to use in their reading circles. The book is a reasonably engaging page-turner, with the requisite tragedies, small triumphs and endorsement of the small joys of being a regular person. And it's a good deal more inspirational than that last Oprah-book-turned-movie, A Map of the World, in which a family loses everything and must figure out how to be happy about it. Anyway, Where the Heart Is has a good deal of sap potential; that which is merely sad in a book can always be made insufferable with the aid of a rousing score or, worse, an adult-contemporary country song.

Strangely enough, the movie doesn't go that route, possibly because it's written and directed by men. City Slickers writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, with director Matt Williams (the creator of TV's Home Improvement), have cranked up the humor and wackiness inherent to a story that involves someone giving birth in a Wal-Mart. What this amounts to is the addition of spit-takes, beer bellies, dick jokes, scenes of Joan Cusack punching people, in-jokes (a gratuitous reference to Portman's last film, Anywhere but Here) and such "aren't these rednecks funny?" lines as "You know, I once went into court and started defending the wrong person." It makes the whole thing go down easier, perhaps, but one wonders whether a sentimental tone might have done more justice to the book. Guess you can't please everybody.

Natalie Portman is Novalee Nation (yes, the names herein are about as realistic as the actresses' appearances), a young, pregnant teen with a superstition about the number five (a nonsensical change from the "seven" in the book, given that seven is a traditionally superstitious number, whereas five is the number of digits on the end of most human limbs, including those of Natalie Portman). Abandoned in an Oklahoma Wal-Mart by her good-for-nothing white-trash boyfriend, Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno, looking like a refugee from Boys Don't Cry or Gummo), en route to California from Tennessee with nothing but $5.55 to her name, Novalee decides to set up camp in the store itself, hiding in a closet at closing time to emerge at night, lay out a sleeping bag and subsist on the ample snack foods available, of which she keeps careful count, fully intending to pay Wal-Mart back at some future date.

During the day, Novalee gets out into town, where she meets the friendly locals, including Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), a religious but not fanatically so earth-mother type; Moses Whitecotten (Keith David), a kindly baby photographer; and Forney Hull (James Frain of Hilary and Jackie), the sardonic town librarian who's too smart for his surroundings but tied down by his terminally ill sister. These well-meaning folks all become major assets when Novalee's baby arrives one dark and stormy night and she gets swept up into a brief media circus as the "Wal-Mart Mom." Letters of support and condemnation come flooding in, as does a job offer from Wal-Mart, and Novalee's deadbeat mother (Sally Field, chain-smoking and sporting just the right excessive amount of makeup).

Meanwhile, Willy Jack has been thrown into prison for his involvement with an underage teen runaway and spends his ample free time composing country songs. On his release, he signs a deal with ball-busting Nashville agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), who cleans him up and gets him on the radio. But some people can't change; Willy Jack soon starts to revert to his sleazy mannerisms, and it's clear his rise won't last.

The film covers a period of five years in all, following Novalee's transition into adulthood, her growing friendship with a local nurse (Judd) and her ambiguous relationship with librarian Forney, who loves her but can't bring himself to say it. There's tragedy and triumph and the surprising message that good-looking men are bad, whereas plain-looking shlubs are loyal and fun (again, chalk this one up to the male writers and director). There are also a couple of really good casting choices: Channing is perfect as the mother figure and character actor Richard Jones is equally good as her live-in love, but the best of all is Forney, who in a typical Hollywood movie would be played by a hunk -- say, Billy Crudup or Joaquin Phoenix in a bad haircut and glasses to symbolize nerd-dom. Here, he's portrayed by Frain, an English actor (although you wouldn't know it from this film) who's a dead ringer for a young Michael Stipe, thereby epitomizing sensitive sarcasm from the get-go. The character's scenes have been cut down from the book, but he remains the best character, and that's as much to Frain's credit as it is to the writers.

It's Portman's film to make or break, however, and she's basically a good choice: As someone who has played wise beyond her years in virtually every film role since her debut in The Professional, she effectively takes Novalee through the five-year journey into adulthood. Her accent is also spot-on; those who cringed at her "kinda-sorta" English accent in The Phantom Menace need not fear her Southern twang, although its similarity to King of the Hill's Luann makes it occasionally more risible than perhaps it should be. Unfortunately, her well-documented aversion to love scenes is obvious; what little we see here makes the similarly inhibited Neve Campbell look like a porn star by comparison. And costar Judd may have too similar a look to Portman's: As Novalee grows older, she starts wearing her hair the same way, and that can lead to confusion in some of the wide shots.

The most significant omission from the novel is a sense of Native American spirituality, which touches both Novalee (inspiring her budding photography skills and love of nature) and Willy Jack (who in the book is helped by a mystically inclined Indian cellmate when his heart stops beating). Eliminating the relevant Native American characters does simplify things -- their characteristics are simply added to other principals -- but it seems a significant tonal change and is especially incongruent given that the name "Novalee Nation" is most likely Indian in origin. The book's most significant insight is also lost, a nicely written scene in which Novalee discusses with Forney how you suddenly realize you're an adult when you find yourself doing something only adults do. There's less of Wal-Mart in the movie, too, but that's probably just time constraints; what we do see is a loving look at trash Americana: disgustingly bright corndog ads, Super Big Gulps, Icee machines and everything anyone could need to camp out in the middle of a large department store at night. That last item may quickly become an anachronism, however, with more and more Wal-Marts going 24 hours, or at least closing later than 9 p.m. Give Billie Letts a lot of credit for realizing that Wal-Mart has become the community center for a lot of small towns, and give Wal-Mart credit for going along with the gag, in print and onscreen.

Opens April 28.

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