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Where the Heart Is

Starring Natalie Portman, Stockard Channing, Sally Field, Ashley Judd and Joan Cusack
Screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel
Based on the novel by Billie Letts
Directed by Matt Williams

IN SHORT: A flat out hit. [Rated [PG-13], 120 minutes]

[and before we begin, one single guy to the hordes of single guys out there that may see this . . . There are other flicks this weekend that are aimed at those of us with an overabundance of testosterone could see, but this is where the single women will be. We walked out of the press screening to see the line for a second screening, designed to help generate word of mouth reaction, jammed packed with hundreds of eligibles. Hundreds. What makes it even sweeter is that this flick is delightful, with none of the pain we usually associate with chick flicks. Review time . . .]

Within five minutes of the start of Where the Heart Is, 17-year old Tennessee native Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman, click for StarTalk) is pregnant, barefoot, and abandoned at a Wal-Mart store in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. Well, she was pregnant to begin with, the hole in the floorboard of the $80 hunkajunk car owned by no-good boyfriend Willie Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) took care of the shoes and you can find anything at a Wal-Mart, including a handy home away from home if you know where to hide when the doors are locked and the lights are turned out. In very short order we learn that Novalee has an almost maniacal aversion to the number five and meet a huge run of supporting characters, both inside and outside the Wal-Mart, before and after baby Americus (it's a girl) arrives. These include Sister Thelma Husband (Stockard Channing), the nun who runs the welcome wagon and her carnal partner Brother Husband (Simon Bennett), photographer Moses Whitecotton (Keith David), nurse Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), local librarian Forney (James Frain) and a long lost mother Lil (Sally Field). Most of 'em do their bit and split, which is usually the sign of a pages packed novel badly adapted for the big screen. Except that, in this case, it isn't.

As always we don't compare to the Source Material, the novel by Billie Letts, the message boards were buzzing a couple of weeks ago with concern that Novalee's numeric phobia had been changed (from "7" to "5"). It's nothing you'll notice if you haven't read the book and the phobia is just as strong two number down. Usually, it's fairly obvious to us when major elements have been left out of a story, or when the screenplay team assumes that everyone in the audience "knows" something that was in the book. There is no such problem in the screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, which moves from incredibly funny into the teary realm of chick flick sentimental without batting an eye or calling attention to itself. Director Matt Williams keeps things moving so quickly that whatever background deficiencies may be in the script are almost unnoticeable. Your mind will fill in the weak points. Saying anything else would be like picking a nit.

So let's talk about Natalie Portman, who carries the weight of this story on her shoulders. Talent that may have been buried under a ton of make up and costume in Star Wars Episode One comes shining to the fore in Where the Heart Is. What could have been a disastrous white trash epic -- and many of the names associated with this tale worked on teevee's Roseanne, so they know of white trash -- hits the ground running as a funny and touching, um, white trash epic. Novalee ages from seventeen to twenty two, becomes a mother and sole provider as she develops a career as a photographer with the help and support of friends met at or working at Wal-Mart. While Novalee makes her journey from simple to solvent, her ex takes an entirely different path. One which will bring him into the realm of mega-Nashville agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack). While Novalee may be simple, Willie Jack is flat out stupid. Whether or not he gets what he deserves is up to you, and it is here, when their paths cross again, that the flick shifts into potentially weepy mode while offering Novalee an affirming moment. One that shows how far she's come by putting her in the face of what could have been.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Where the Heart Is, he would have paid...


Simple folk in a simple story. Very funny and not overly chick flick manipulative. Terrific support performances from Stockard Channing and Ashley Judd. A very enjoyable flick.

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