"Let's face it, girls like you and me, we don't exactly get the pick of the litter."
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Apologies to any critics who began their April reviews of Where the Heart Is as I did above: by quoting a line delivered to Natalie Portman from Ashley Judd. Can you imagine either of these women being hard up for dates? Didn't think so. And therein lies the dishonesty of the film's milieu, a cross-section of country trash played by actors who have to spend hours in a make-up chair before they can appear convincingly poor and dishevelled. From the looks of things, Portman and Judd weren't even extended that courtesy, turning the pair into mere pantomimes of ugly; I am reminded of the time I was forced to accept a sixteen-year-old Chinese boy as Tom Joad in a high school production of "The Grapes of Wrath".
Portman may be too glamorous for Novalee Nation (and I say this irrespective of class biases, based on how the other characters react to her: with intent disregard for her physical luminosity), the pregnant teen who is ditched by her boyfriend during a pee break at Wal-Mart, but she's a solid enough thespian to almost pull off a two-bit hussy routine. If anything, the actress has a harder time suppressing her obvious intellect than her pulchritude: no moments rings less true than the one in which she tells her librarian friend (James Frain, accurately described by EW's Owen Gleiberman as "morosely uncharismatic") that she has to look up the words from her textbook in a dictionary, then look up those words in a children's dictionary.
So Novalee has her baby, in the Wal-Mart, (after surreptitiously residing there for six weeks), natch, and the two of them are taken in by gothic stereotypes, such as Thelma "Sister" Husband (Stockard Channing) and Lexie (Judd), a single mother to many children thanks to her patent sexual indiscretion. In parallel scenes, we find out what happened to Novalee's boyfriend after he peeled out of that parking lot, in a ridiculous rags-to-riches story that aims to please revenge-minded moviegoers, but is more noteworthy for its baseless Joan Cusack cameo--has she ever been used this egregiously?
Taken from the Oprah-approved novel by Billie Letts, the script was penned by the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Not famed for its nuance, their work dates back to "Happy Days" and can be at least funny and sweet in the hands of a film director and naturally born comedic cast--Parenthood is a shining example of this. But TV-vet Matt Williams helmed Where the Heart Is, and he might as well have strung together four "very special episodes" of either "Roseanne" or "Home Improvement", two shows he co-created. This preachy, episodic, arid film strains to be a culturally friendly/anonymous confection; one of its climaxes even sees the camera swirling around the heads of two young lovers while they share their first significant kiss. Compulsorily, a drippy love song underscores the faux-tenderness of the encounter--what more do you need to know?
Imagine my pain at not being able to look away from Where the Heart Is for a second, because I was so awed by its reference-quality video. The 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced widescreen image exhausts my lexicon of praise; has Fox ever released a disc this gorgeous to stare at? The three-dimensional, film-like transfer is complemented by a good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that would be undistinguished were it not for a tornado sequence that really rocks the casbah. Dialogue is firmly centred, and ambient sound is believably distributed among the mains and surrounds. Music could be a smidge louder--not that I want to hear said drippy love song ("That's the Beat of a Heart" by The Warren Brothers featuring Sara Evans, the video for which is included as a bonus) any better than I did. The requisite original theatrical trailers and television spots (both in 2.0) cap off this underwhelming fare.
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