Where the Heart Is

You’d think a film with a title like this would be full of heartfelt sentiments and sweetness, but no. “Where the Heart Is” instead is full of poorly written Hollywood tripe, a coming-of-age story in which yeah, the main character gets older, but she doesn’t learn anything.

There’s white trash aplenty as Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) starts out in Tennessee in 1995, pregnant and heading to California with her boyfriend, the unshowered and loathsome Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno). While stopped at a Sequoyah, Okla., Wal-Mart so Novalee can use the bathroom, Willy Jack cements his loathsomeness by taking off, leaving her with no money and no place to stay.

So she takes up residence in the Wal-Mart, hiding there when the store closes each night, and making sure to be out of sight again when the employees arrive in the morning. She does this for six weeks, at which point she gives birth and becomes a celebrity — the “Wal-Mart Mommy.”

(If you think it’s ridiculous that a person could live in a Wal-Mart for six weeks undetected, this movie is not for you. It is also ridiculous that Novalee is incredibly superstitious about the number five, and that the number five actually proves to be unlucky for her on several occasions, thus giving credence to her irrational fear. It’s also ridiculous when a tornado strikes and Novalee is seen holding on to the cellar door with one hand while the wind tries to carry her away, like in the movie “Twister.” Ridiculousness is something you’re just going to have to put up with if you intend to watch this movie.)

Soon she’s friends with a nice hospital nurse named Lexie (Ashley Judd), the five-time unwed mother who makes unwed motherhood seem so darned unsinful (take THAT, you religious nuts, and other people who believe the Bible!). And she’s living with local nice lady Thelma Husband (Stockard Channing). And she’s being best friends with — but not falling in love with (yeah, right) — local librarian/nice guy Forney (James Frain).

Her life is not without hardship, though, you can rest assured. She becomes a professional photographer, but only after literally seconds of buying an old camera and struggling to read a complicated book on the subject, with Forney helping her sound out the tough words. Her precious baby, Americus, even gets kidnapped by some religious zealots, though she is then promptly found, unharmed, in approximately one minute.

Not only do all the conflicts in this movie get resolved pretty fast, but the filmmakers are kind enough to tell us when they’re about to happen, too, so we’ll know what emotion to feel. Whether it’s by the musical score, or by someone saying, “It’s OK, I’ll be right back” just before heading out into a tornado, we always know when tragedy is about to strike. The audience should just be given a script telling them when to laugh or cry, as that would save the film the trouble of whacking them over the head with it.

We’re also treated to a subplot following loathsome Willy Jack’s rise to country-music superstardom. This has absolutely, positively NO RELATION WHATSOEVER to the main plot. It does, however, allow us to see the fabulous Joan Cusack as a Nashville music executive, and frankly, any excuse to put Joan Cusack on the screen is fine by me.

Natalie Portman, normally a fine actress, just phones it in here, giving us no insight at all into her character. The same goes double for everyone else. We see their lives in great detail, but learn nothing about what makes them tick. It’s a character drama with no characters, and in fact with very little drama.

C (; PG-13, scattered profanities, sexual promiscuity (though nothing is shown), brief non-graphic sex scene, mild innuendo.)