Thank god for Joan Cusack. As the sole truly cynical character in TV producer Matt (Roseanne, A Different World) Williams’s feature film directing debut, she is desperately welcome for the fifteen or so minutes, total, that she’s on screen. Granted, she plays a character that you’ve probably seen her play before, slightly offbeat and very observant, sapient beyond her station. But I can’t think of a time when she wasn’t a great addition to a movie, even an enthralling one, and in this case, she feels like a life-saving antidote to some vaguely noxious saccharine overdose.
What happens around Cusack is Lowell Ganz’s glib, episodic, chick-flicky adaptation of Billie Letts’s popular novel. She plays Ruth Meyers, the all-business, practical-minded agent for guitar-picker-singer Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno), who is one of the film’s protagonists or more precisely, its primary antagonist (meaning, basically, he’s a man, and a mean one). You wouldn’t hold Ruth Meyers (everyone calls her Ruth Meyers, not Ruth) responsible for his tedious shenanigans; rather, she serves as the breath of fresh air the film offers while we have to watch the several scenes featuring Willy Jack. He finds her after a stint in prison, where he’s served time for consorting with a minor and possession of stolen goods (or something like that). The point is, that Willy Jack Pickens (“You didn’t even have to make that up, did you?” snaps Ruth Meyers) is slime of the lowest grade, the designated moral and karmic foil for the darling and determined heroine of Where the Heart Is, Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman, apparently still doing penance for playing Queen Amidala).
Novalee is the kind of underclass victim character that mainstream movies love to love, as far from Jerry Springer’s threateningly profane trash-talkers as she could possibly be. In her “condition” and in her contrast to Willy Jack, Novalee is instantly sympathetic: she’s simple but shrewd, wonderful but insecure, a sweetheart just waiting for a crew of pleasant eccentrics to save her from the lousy hand she’s been dealt. At film’s opening, Novalee emerges from her house trailer in rural Tennessee, about to hit the road with her greasy-haired boyfriend Willy Jack. She’s seventeen years old and very pregnant, and he’s a dick right off the bat, yelling at her to hurry up, dissing her teary friends, derisive about her “dream,” in which she imagines herself seated on her house porch looking out on the ocean: more than anything, she says, she wants to “drink chocolate milk and watch the sun go down.” He’s unmoved, just as he is when she asks him to feel the baby, in particular, to put his hand “where the heart is.” “Hmphh,” he sniffs, “Couldn’t tell by me,” and takes another pull off his beer bottle.
Unbelievably, given what we witness in three minutes, Novalee believes that Willy Jack loves her, and so, when they make a bathroom stop at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma, she initially looks shocked when she comes outside to see that Willy Jack and his old Plymouth are nowhere in sight. At the same time, Novalee is not surprised at all, as you learn just before the requisite long shot, craning up from the Wal-Mart parking lot, to show her looking desolate and vulnerable. Novalee has a theory that the number 5 is bad luck for her (due to a few past adverse occurrences involving 5s, as dates, times, and whatever) and her purchase at the Wal-Mart rings up with multiple 5s, so that she just about flies out them doors, knowing in her bones that the boy is already gone. While this may seem a catastrophe on its surface she has no money, no family to speak of, and obviously nowhere to go you know it isn’t because, as you’ve intuited from these first few scenes (and the few hundred scenes from other movies that they resemble), Novalee is always right and righteous.
Where the Heart Is is all about Novalee’s righteousness and rightness, in every sense (even if her taste in partners seems a bit suspect just now). She’s the chick flick’s answer to Forrest Gump, that is, no matter how silly her ideas or actions seem at a given moment, she possesses a kind of blessed wisdom that keeps her just a step ahead of tragedy at every turn. (As well, and to be fair, she isn’t nearly so irritating at Forrest: Novalee speaks in lilting rhythms and intelligible sentences, and her movie is not nearly so hard on women as Forrest’s.) Locked in the Wal-Mart later that night, she decides to camp out, borrowing sleeping bags, food, clothes, and an alarm clock, so that she can wake and complete her toilet just before the day crew starts in at 6am. But Novalee’s no freeloader: she keeps a ledger (in a borrowed notebook) of what she “owes” Wal-Mart; eventually, she’s been at the store for some 6 weeks. And then, one rainy night, she has her baby, aided by a ninja-looking fellow who, on hearing her screams, leaps through the store’s plate glass windows to help her with the birth.
The next morning, with no memory of the evening’s events, Novalee wakes in the hospital, surrounded by flowers and gifts for the mother of the Wal-Mart Baby. Her celebrity inspires a visit her long lost mama (Sally Field, not nearly so devoted to her child as she was in Forrest Gump), and Novalee’s so generous and amiable that she forgives her mother for running off when she was only 5. But the Bad Mother only makes a brief appearance: Where the Heart Is celebrates motherhood as vocation, inspiration, and destination. Novalee and her baby daughter Americus Nation settle in so-very-nicely with the local “Welcome Woman,” Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) and her white-haired, live-in manfriend, the reportedly extra-virile Mr. Sprock (Richard Jones). Sister Husband plays surrogate mom for Novalee and Americus (when Novalee’s pursuing her appropriately artistic career plan, to become a photographer. She’s encouraged in this endeavor by the Wal-Mart child portraitist, Moses Whitecotton (Keith David, long-suffering and sole black presence in this Midwestern wonderland of white momness). She’s also encouraged by her best friend, nurse Lexi Coop (Ashley Judd), who names her numerous children after snack foods (Baby Ruth, Brownie, etc.), to seek out the perfect love match, while her own disastrous romances include a child molester and other undesirables. The point of Lexi’s example appears to be that her sexy self-confidence doesn’t preclude her making bad judgments, which makes her like and unlike Novalee (who may not understand herself as “sexy,” but certainly looks that way in her adorable tight-fitting baby tank tops and jeans).
Novalee’s primary romance is emphatically not sexual for most of the film—or rather, it’s full of sexual tension that isn’t acted on until late in the day). Almost as soon as she arrives in town, Novalee meets the local librarian, Forney (James Frain), whose curly hair and soulful eyes go a long way to making up for his erratic behavior (that, and the fact that he’s returned from university to care for his ailing sister, whom he hides away upstairs like Bertha Rochester). Novalee thinks she’s not smart enough for college boy, but he really loves her much (as indicated by the fact that he is the fellow who risks his life to save hers during that monumentally symbolic rainstorm/birth scene).
You see that Where the Heart Is doesn’t exactly eschew the preposterous. To the contrary, it privileges odd characters and absurd incidents, most all of them geared to make Novalee look good. The movie’s episodic structure is surely a function of the filmmakers’ efforts to squeeze as many of the beloved book’s events into two hours as possible, but it also has the effect of a lengthy “compare and contrast” exercise, in which Novalee’s decent life is set against Willy Jack’s evil one. Oh yeah, him. Once Novalee is safely ensconced with Sister Husband and Lexi and Forney, the movie cuts back to Willy Jack, so you can see him get arrested and jailed, learning to sing, getting out of jail and cutting a hit single. What’s troubling, just in terms of narrative strategy, is that by this time, you don’t give a damn about Willy Jack, so the brief views of his exploits just underline the measure of Novalee’s virtue (except, of course, when Ruth Meyers cracks wise). The film continues to cut back and forth between the two characters, like you’re watching TV and switching channels, trying not to be bored.
Television understood as code for superficiality is a disappointingly appropriate model for Where the Heart Is, as it projects a broad and bland “demographic” for its audience, the lowest-common-denominator kind that TV programmers are rumored to imagine. The moral lessons the film teaches are rudimentary and Oprah-esque (be nice, work hard, love your kids and neighbors, conform to community standards, take a moment to drink your chocolate milk), and the payoffs for Novalee’s goodness and righteousness are predictable (nice house, decent man, satisfying career, lovely child). In this familiar formula (following the banal example of Steel Magnolias), women’s experience and knowledge are particular and precious to them, functions of fate. The formula isn’t about to challenge any conventional notions about women’s places and hearts.