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Okie Glamour

Ashley Judd and Natalie Portman as poor white folk? It's best not to question the attraction of Where the Heart Is.

You're just going to have to accept that Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd are far too glamorous for the roles they inhabit in Where the Heart Is. It's an issue that probably won't hurt the film's reception: Remember Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias? Your average moviegoer loves movie stars, and wants to see a story he or she can relate to. If the two can reasonably mesh, even if the resulting product doesn't quite resemble reality, who's gonna complain? So you don't know any single mother of five on this planet who looks like Ashley Judd. You probably don't know any cops who look like Mel Gibson either.

Where the Heart Is is the latest film adaptation of an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed novel from author Billie Letts, and as such will have a built-in following. The book is a reasonably engaging page-turner with the requisite tragedies, small triumphs and endorsement of the small joys of being a regular person. It's a good deal more inspirational than that last Oprah-endorsed-book-turned-movie, A Map of the World, in which a family loses everything and must figure out how to be happy about it. Where the Heart Is has a good deal of sap potential, since a merely sad story can always be made insufferable with the aid of a rousing score, or worse, an adult-contemporary country song.

Strangely enough, the movie doesn't go that route, possibly because it's written and directed by men. City Slickers writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, with director Matt Williams (the creator of TV's Home Improvement), have cranked up the humor and wackiness inherent to a story that involves giving birth in a Wal-Mart. What this amounts to is the addition of spit-takes, beer bellies, dick jokes, scenes of Joan Cusack punching people, in-jokes (a gratuitous reference to Portman's last film, Anywhere But Here), and "aren't these rednecks funny?" lines such as "You know, I once went into court and started defending the wrong person." It makes the whole thing go down easier, perhaps, but one wonders if a sentimental tone might have done more justice to the book.

Backwoods cover girls: Natalie Portman (left) and Ashley Judd shed their Spago's-and-Rodeo-Drive personae in Where the Heart Is.
Twentieth Century Fox
Backwoods cover girls: Natalie Portman (left) and Ashley Judd shed their Spago's-and-Rodeo-Drive personae in Where the Heart Is.

Natalie Portman is Novalee Nation, a pregnant teenager with a superstition about the number five (a nonsensical change from the "seven" in the book, given that seven is a traditionally superstitious number). Abandoned in an Oklahoma Wal-Mart by her good-for-nothing white-trash boyfriend, Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno), Novalee decides to set up camp in the store itself, hiding in a closet at closing time to emerge at night, lay out a sleeping bag and subsist on the ample snack foods, of which she keeps careful count, fully intending to pay Wal-Mart back at some future date.

During the day, Novalee walks into town, where she meets the friendly locals, including Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), a religious but not fanatical earth-mother type; Moses Whitecotten (Keith David), a kindly baby photographer; and Forney Hull (James Frain, of Hilary and Jackie), the sardonic town librarian who's too smart for his surroundings but tied down by his terminally ill sister. These well-meaning folk all become major assets when Novalee's baby arrives one dark and stormy night, and she gets swept up into a brief media circus as the Wal-Mart Mom. Letters of support and condemnation come flooding in, as does a job offer from Wal-Mart and Novalee's deadbeat mother (Sally Field).

Meanwhile, Willy Jack has been thrown into prison for his involvement with an underage teen runaway and promptly spends his ample free time composing country songs. Upon his release, he signs a deal with ball-busting Nashville agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), who cleans him up and gets him on the radio. But some people can't change; Willy Jack soon starts to revert to his sleazy self.

The film covers a period of five years, following Novalee's transition into adulthood, her growing friendship with a local nurse (Judd) and her ambiguous relationship with librarian Forney. There's tragedy and triumph, and the surprising message that good-looking men are bad, while plain-looking shlubs are loyal and fun (can we also chalk this one up to the male writers and director?). There are several really good casting choices: Channing is perfect as the mother figure; character actor Richard Jones is equally good as her live-in love; but best of all is the guy who plays Forney. In a typical Hollywood movie, Forney would have been played by a hunk, say Billy Crudup or Joaquin Phoenix, in a bad haircut and glasses to symbolize nerd-dom; here, he's portrayed by Frain, an English actor who's a dead ringer for a young Michael Stipe. He's the best character in the movie, and that's as much to Frain's credit as it is to the writers'.

It's Portman's film to make or break, however, and she's basically a good choice. As someone who has played wise beyond her years in virtually every role since her debut in The Professional, she effectively takes Novalee through the five-year journey into adulthood. Her accent is also spot-on; those who cringed at her kinda-sorta English accent in The Phantom Menace need not fear her Southern twang. Unfortunately, her well-documented aversion to love scenes is obvious; what little we see here makes the similarly inhibited Neve Campbell look like a porn star.

The most significant omission from the novel is a sense of Native American spirituality, which touches both Novalee (inspiring her budding photography skills and love of nature) and Willy Jack (who in the book is helped by a mystically inclined Indian cellmate when his heart stops beating). Eliminating the relevant Native American characters does simplify things, as their characteristics are simply added to other principals, but it seems a significant tonal change and is especially incongruent given that the name "Novalee Nation" is most likely Indian in origin. The book's most significant insight is also lost, a nicely written scene in which Novalee discusses with Forney how you suddenly realize you're an adult when you find yourself doing something only adults do.

There's less of Wal-Mart in the movie, too, but that probably has to do with time constraints; what we do see is a loving look at trash Americana: disgustingly bright corn-dog ads, super big gulps, Icee machines and everything anyone could need to camp out in the middle of a large department store at night. That last item may quickly become an anachronism, however, with more and more Wal-Marts going 24 hours, or at least closing later than nine. Give Billie Letts a lot of credit for realizing that Wal-Mart has become the community center for a lot of small towns, and give Wal-Mart credit for going along with the gag, in print and on screen.

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