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Miscasting, shallow story betrays 'Heart'

Behind the blue chipped nail polish, phony Southern accent and fraudulent full womb lies an Audrey Hepburn-esque waif by the name of Natalie Portman. More convincing as a Kate Spade poster child than a redneck Wal-Mart patron, the miscast Portman epitomizes the insultingly transparent nature of director Matt Williams' "Where the Heart Is."

An insult to rednecks everywhere, "Heart," based on the best-selling novel by Billie Letts, reduces anyone south of the Mason Dixon line to trailer trash, perpetuating negative stereotypes while attempting to disprove generalizations in an immature and unconvincing way.

Novalee Nation (one of many ridiculously named characters in the film) must face obstacle after contrived obstacle as she plunges into her first pitfall -- abandonment by boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) in Sequoyah, Oklahoma's Wal-Mart parking lot.

But sure enough, Novalee remains unscathed long enough to take up residence in the superstore, where she later gives birth to the legendary Americus Nation.

Despite the child's climactic birth, a series of clichéd conflicts ensue, each progressively more trite. Try as it might, "Heart"'s series of deaths, train accidents, battery and tornadoes fails to produce any tears from an apathetic and wearied audience.

Ashley Judd disappoints as Novalee's sister-like companion, Lexie Coop, whose struggles as a single mother of children named after junk foods (Brownie and Praline are just two of them) merit no sympathy. Sally Field makes a cameo as Novalee's conniving mother, Mama Lil, but fails to leave a lasting impression after a total of about five minutes on screen.

One character who doesn't fit the redneck mold is Forney Hull, an educated Northeasterner who gives up his dream of becoming a teacher to care for his mentally ill sister in Oklahoma. Despite attempts to portray Forney as radically different and interesting, his character is as stale as the rest.

With a cast consisting of unoriginal stock characters, the eccentric recovering alcoholic, Sister Husband, played convincingly by Stockard Channing, and her partner in dysfunction, Mr. Sprock (Richard Jones), Novalee's surrogate mother and father, provide a rare moment of comedy in the poorly fabricated melodrama.

Joan Cusack's small role as an uncompromising record exec makes the two hour agony pass a little more quickly, but doesn't prevent the movie from digging its own hole.

Lexie, Forney, Sister Husband and Mr. Sprock become Novalee's support system as she begins her life as a mother, but poor writing and a lack of character depth fail to draw any meaningful connection between the four characters.

Forney and Novalee make a most predictable, though unlikely, pair of romantic interests. Forney moves quickly from feelings of irritation with Novalee to those of love in a ridiculously short time.

Perhaps one of the film's major problems is the way in which it chronicles events over a long period of time. Before we even know any background information about a character, he or she immediately is thrust into some life-altering episode.

And that's not the only problem. Time passages merely indicated by Novalee's shorter hairdo and an older Americus only provide more evidence of the film's one-dimensionality. What writers fail to communicate from dialogue and more in-depth character sketches, they make up for in a longer time span.

"Heart" tries too hard and inevitably chokes on its attempts. Unfortunately, the Southern accents present in the film just don't catapult it to the ranks of the classic "Fried Green Tomatoes" or "Steel Magnolias."

Grade: D


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