Friday, April 28, 2000

”Where the Heart Is” threatens to leave the skeptical with a searing dose of indigestion. This slow-moving sentimental steamroller lays an invisible but insufferable red carpet for a dubious paragon: an unwed teen-age mother elevated to lofty heights of vanity entitlement.

Called Novalee Nation, allegorically I suppose, and played by Natalie Portman, presuming much too heavily on wistful and naive attributes, the heroine is inflated beyond reasonable solicitude after hiding out and then giving birth in a Wal-Mart store in a small town called Sequoyah, Okla. Only the heroism of a mystery rescuer, soon revealed to be a shy and self-sacrificing librarian called Forney Hull (James Frain), saves her life and the life of an infant daughter, Americus, when Novalee goes into labor in the dead of night.

A certain celebrity and considerable generosity follow in the wake of her deliverance. It’s a pity that the ghost of Preston Sturges couldn’t have been conjured up to keep the rest of the plot in some kind of sanely rollicking motion. Director Matt Williams and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel are content to dote on Novalee as a winsome dunce. She gets to expect the best of everything without being required to wise up in a timely and salutary fashion.

The oversights that jump out of the exposition Wal-Mart is a cute idea for a sanctuary, but why doesn’t Novalee need to dodge anything that resembles a custodian or night watchman? spawn prolific new generations of oversights as the movie struggles to glorify Novalee’s “growth” over five years. More like 75 by my watch. The time must hang heavy for lovelorn Forney, who is kept at a platonic distance by the need to care for an invalid, alcoholic sister.

Ultimately, Novalee breaks his dear, aching heart by throwing him a little solace and then declaring that she doesn’t love him after all. As if that hadn’t been apparent for about four cinematic years. Nevertheless, she is let off the hook for this cruelty: She only hurt him to spare his feelings, it transpires. Novalee still feels inadequate, Forney being a college man and all. She must be told, in so many revolting words, “Nobody is better than you, Novalee.”

The expendable Willie Jack gets unwelcome encores, extending from a prison term through a struggle to be a singer under the auspices of a bad-tempered agent played by Joan Cusack. Why keep this wretch in the picture? So he can eventually return and humble his worthless self to Novalee, by then the moral envy of the human race.

The scenes needed to show Novalee becoming a credit to Sequoyah and all the decent people who helped her just aren’t there. One does get gratuitous alarms: a kidnapping threat for Americus, a twister threat for both mom and toddler.

There also are premature kiss-offs for characters who somehow outlive their usefulness, notably Stockard Channing as Novalee’s first benefactor. When Novalee’s best pal, Ashley Judd as a five-time unwed mother called Lexie, gets brutalized by an off-screen boyfriend, Novalee is there to comfort her with cant.

In the final analysis, “Where the Heart Is” mistakes a little monster of egotism for a sweetheart. This is how the Frankenstein tradition can be reconciled with fruitcake feminism.

One Star

TITLE: “Where the Heart Is”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence; an interlude about a kidnapped baby; an interlude about sexual assaults on a mother and her children)

CREDITS: Directed by Matt Williams. Screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on the novel by Billie Letts.

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes


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