Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Where The Heart Is

Thanks to Oprah Winfrey's book club, it's been possible to determine the exact size of the audience for tales of ordinary people who overcome extraordinary problems by calling upon untapped reserves of inner strength. Whatever their overall literary merits—and anyone who turns readers on to Toni Morrison can't be all bad—Winfrey's selections haven't yet fared particularly well as films. The Deep End Of The Ocean played like a TV movie blown up to gargantuan proportions, and the new Where The Heart Is doesn't mark much of an improvement. Natalie Portman plays a pregnant teen left stranded at a Wal-Mart. Undaunted, she takes up residence there for several weeks, becoming a local celebrity after giving birth to "the Wal-Mart baby." (Later, in another bit of canny corporate synergy, she wins a prize presented by Kodak.) But, thanks to the film's infinitely and needlessly complex plot, this marks only the onset of the perils of Portman, who endures a kidnapping, a tornado, the battering of a friend at the hands of a child molester, and countless other travails before Where The Heart Is groans to its long-delayed, arbitrary, and welcome end. Though Portman has done fine work before, here she seems stiff and uncomfortable, as if still encased in Queen Amidala makeup. A talented supporting cast (Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd, Joan Cusack) helps, but not much; there's only so much to be done with material of such limited potential. Director Matt Williams is known for creating sitcoms (Roseanne, Home Improvement), while screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers, Fathers' Day) are known for creating films that play like sitcoms. It's not surprising, then, that Heart uses a pattern of set-up and delivery to lurch along from one subplot to another: Mysterious strangers appear in one scene, in the next a baby is kidnapped, and in the next the baby is found. On to the next crisis. Still, even a few sitcom-quality gags would be a welcome respite from the many scenes in which characters deliver Southern-drawled monologues laced with homespun aphorisms. A grossly inflated sense of self-importance also works against Where The Heart Is. Filled with symbolic settings and characters named "Novalee Nation" and "Moses Whitecotton," it seems convinced it's creating something grand and allegorical: a visit from Piers Plowman or a trip to Vanity Fair wouldn't come as great surprises. But aside from the simple message that people should be nice to one another—a point it illustrates by keeping Portman's creepy ex-boyfriend Dylan Bruno around for the sole purpose of enduring abuse and misfortune—there's a near total absence of significance here. Online film fans' ability to use the Where The Heart Is web site to sign up for the chance to win a Wal-Mart shopping spree after taking a series of Kohlberg-like quizzes to determine their moral development, however, suggests its own sort of symbolism.

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