2 items from 2000
"Where the Heart Is" is a sentimental fairy tale about a guileless, pregnant teen who gets abandoned by her callous boyfriend in a nowhere Midwestern town. Nevertheless, she manages by pluck and sheer dumb luck to raise her baby, become part of an unconventional family and even marry Mr. Right. The film, starring Natalie Portman, doesn't have a single truthful moment, but then fairy tales aren't designed for truth.
What really sabotages the fairy tale is the condescending tone director Matt Williams and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel take toward their characters. If there is a watchdog group looking to protest unflattering media portraits of "poor white trash," this movie will provide an excellent rallying point.
Fox is in for a tough time trying to convince moviegoers in Middle America -- which can truthfully consider itself libeled by this portrait -- or on either coast to spend time with these hapless personalities. A generic, could-mean-anything title won't help either.
Novalee Nation's (Portman) background and aspirations are succinctly summed up during an opening sequence. She and her musician boyfriend, Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno), are preparing to travel from Tennessee to California in a rusted-out Plymouth when an excited Novalee declares, "I never lived in a place that didn't have wheels under it."
She gets as far as Oklahoma, where Willy Jack, for no particular reason, ditches her while she's making a bathroom stop at a Wal-Mart. Dead broke, Novalee takes up residence in the department store. One night, when the baby suddenly wants to be born, she collapses in pain. She is saved when kindly librarian Forney (James Frain), in superhero fashion, breaks into the store and saves her and the newborn.
(It's a minor point, but didn't anyone think to rename this character? The way the actors pronounce his name, it sounds as if he's in a state of permanent sexual arousal.)
After the birth, Novalee and her "Wal-Mart Baby" become instant celebrities -- for a day, at least. Then she is taken in by a motherly recovering alcoholic who calls herself Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) and is befriended by the sisterly Lexie (Ashley Judd), who meets men and has their kids with frightening regularity.
During the next five years, Novalee and her child survive a kidnapping and a tornado, while Lexie and her kids must cope with the psychological devastation of a boyfriend who turns out to be a child molester.
Meanwhile, in scenes disconnected from the main narrative, the viewer is treated to the downward spiral of Willy Jack, starting with his arrest moments after ditching Novalee and ending with his losing his legs when he's too drunk to get out of the way of a freight train. As you might have gathered, nobody has any smarts in this sorry bunch, including the librarian who takes five years to work up the nerve to tell Novalee he loves her.
What makes the film watchable are its spirited performances. Portman, 18, is fairly convincing in her aging from 17 to 22, though the latter is a stretch, which probably explains why Williams keeps love scenes between Portman and Frain to a minimum.
Channing and Judd put vigor into their cliched characters, but the most amusing turn is by Joan Cusack as a tough-cookie Nashville agent who thinks she sees C&W talent in Willy Jack. Her character has no real link to the movie, but the picture picks up every time she appears.
All technical credits are pro, with the twister sequence giving the film some badly needed excitement.
WHERE THE HEART IS
Producers: Matt Williams, Susan Cartsonis,
David McFadzean, Patricia Whitcher
Director: Matt Williams
Screenwriters: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel
Based on the novel by: Billie Letts
Executive producers: Carmen Finestra,
Director of photography: Richard Greatrex
Production designer: Paul Peters
Music: Mason Daring
Costume designer: Melinda Eshelman
Editor: Ian Crafford
Novalee Nation: Natalie Portman
Lexie: Ashley Judd
Sister Husband: Stockard Channing
Ruth Meyers: Joan Cusack
Forney: James Frain
Willy Jack: Dylan Bruno
Moses Whitecotten: Keith David
Running time -- 120 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
A smart, funny and youth-savvy relationship film, Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity" should score well with post-college-age viewers, who will identify with the film's commitment-phobic take on issues of love and work and its passionate belief in the centrality of music in forming self-definition. This relatively faithful adaptation of Nick Hornby's beloved music-culture novel played to wildly enthusiastic acclaim at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
The film's Chicago locale is its primary deviation from the book, where the story took place in London. Otherwise, lines of dialogue and the story's interior monologues are transferred from the novel with most of their acerbic wit and music-drenched knowledge intact.
John Cusack, who co-produced and co-wrote with his "Grosse Pointe Blank" partners D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, stars as Rob Gordon, the owner of a none-too-successful record store. Celebration Vinyl is a temple of popular music knowledge and free-ranging tastes, presided over by Rob and his two employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). The triumvirate rules its tiny domain with the fervor of unrecognized music czars, subjecting customers to the self-anointed infallibility of their own musical tastes.
These three underappreciated music connoisseurs are also inveterate list makers, constantly tossing off hilarious topics for new top 5 lists. In addition to providing a source for much of the movie's humor, these lists provide the underpinning of the movie's structure as well.
Beginning as Rob's live-in girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) walks out on him, "High Fidelity" traces the course of his top five relationships with women, as Rob believes that he will discover the source of all his problems if he figures out why each of these relationships went sour.
His search through his past takes the form of a male confessional. He addresses the audience directly in a running commentary on his life and actions, a technique that mimics the novel's first-person narrative structure. While Cusack is engaging and believable as the story's self-absorbed narrator, the tactic still leaves the film itching for a stronger sense of plot direction.
Rob's observations are insightful and funny, picayune and revealing. Yet there is a certain narrative slackness that comes with realizing the only organizing principle here is Rob's revisitation of old relationships.
Still, there is something comforting about Cusack's turn as Rob; he seems as if he is playing a continuation of "Say Anything"'s Lloyd Dobler --only a few years older and a tiny bit wiser. Any possible aversion to the movie's "guy" spirit is precluded by Cusack's engaging appeal to both men and women.
A strong cast of supporting players enlivens the story. Girlfriends run the physical and dispositional gamut from Lili Taylor to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are also on hand for particularly distinctive comic turns.
As Rob's employees, Louiso and Black contribute to the film's authenticity, playing their roles as encyclopedic music geeks and feisty best friends with telling verve and body language. Black, in particular, delivers a full-throttle comic performance that should bring him to the attention of casting directors who have heretofore relegated him mostly to bland background roles. Bruce Springsteen also appears in a surprise cameo.
Technical credits are excellent. Chicago is used as an authentic backdrop, and the production design of the record store and surrounding music scene is rich is realistic detail, as are the costuming and soundtrack by music supervisor Kathy Nelson. The direction by Stephen Frears is solid though unshowy, allowing the focus of the movie to reside in its wonderful characters and atmosphere.
Buena Vista Pictures
Touchstone Pictures and Working Title Films
in association with Dogstar Films/New Crime Productions
Producers:Tim Bevan, Rudd Simmons
Screenwriters:D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg
Based on the book by:Nick Hornby
Executive producers:Mike Newell, Alan Greenspan, Liza Chasin
Co-producers:John Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink
Director of photography:Seamus McGarvey
Production designer:David Chapman, Therese DePrez
Costume designer:Laura Cunningham Bauer
Rob Gordon:John Cusack
Marie De Salle:Lisa Bonet
Caroline:Natasha Gregson Wagner
Running time -- 114 minutes
MPAA rating: R
2 items from 2000
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