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By Susan Ellis

MAY 8, 2000:  Where the Heart Is is what one might call a chick flick. It's cruel to defame an entire gender this way. Its biggest abuse: pandering without cease -- or wit or much of anything else.

The film is based on the novel by Billie Letts and revolves around a Tennessee waif by the name of Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman). Novalee is pretty, sure, but she's not educated enough to know what's good for her. Not even out of her teens, she's pregnant and headed to California with her mullet-haired boyfriend Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno) in an $80 Plymouth with a hole in the floor big enough to clear a Big Gulp cup.

The pair make a pit-stop at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart, and while Novalee stands in line, Willy Jack makes tracks, leaving his girlfriend seven-and-half months along with nothing more than 5 bucks, a pair of flip-flops, and a Polaroid camera. Novalee makes due by living in that Wal-Mart for six weeks until her baby comes.

Novalee and her Wal-Mart baby become celebrities, and with no where to go and no money, Novalee decides to stay put. She moves in with the eccentric but kind Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), a bona fide horn dog but a religious woman nonetheless. Novalee also befriends Lexie (Ashley Judd), who, too, is eccentric but kind and has a knack for getting knocked up and then naming her kids for snack foods. In addition, Novalee meets Forney, the too-smart-for-this-town librarian who is eccentric but kind.

You seeing a pattern here? This is the first feature film for director Matt Williams, whose previous work was largely in television. It shows, for this is a very made-for-TV-movie movie. The gimmick here is that Poor White Trash Are Some Curious Folks. Look at the characters' names, for instance. Sister Husband? Novalee? Lexie's kids Brownie, Praline, and Baby Ruth? Novalee names her daughter Americus. It may just be that poor white trash are the last folks we as a society can freely gawk at. So it seems that the message from Where the Heart Is is that these people are by and large a bunch of dumbasses, but they've got the smarts where it counts -- in the heart.

Yes, it is all right to gag.

And so Where the Heart Is struggles to get by on a series of cute-isms punctuated by a few canned dramatic moments. Novalee, at 18, is a wide-eyed innocent. One of the first things she says is "I've never lived anywhere that didn't have wheels under it." We are to be amazed as she matures into a bright young woman. If anything, the awe stops at Portman's flawless beauty; her character is much too passive to be of much interest. All the sass has been passed out to Lexie and Sister, though they feel store-bought, artificially made to be funny.

The film works for about the first five minutes or so, and with passing minute it becomes harder and harder to bear -- let's not even get into the part where the guy loses his legs -- and there's just no heart in that. -- Susan Ellis


Somewhere In time, The Philadelphia Experiment, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the Back to The Future trilogy. It's been done. Time travel is one of those quirky little nuances that, if done well, can serve as a great setting for fish-out-of-water fun; but, if done poorly, can at the very least put a couple of million butts in the seats.

Nowadays, the promise of that kind of commercial success would normally be enough to launch the production of Will's American Revolution with Will Smith reenacting Paul Revere's ride to the local club to do his accompanying soundtrack.

With that in mind, one can imagine the disbelief on audiences faces when they sit down to Frequency and receive a refreshing new look at the theme of time travel.

Discarding the time machine for an a.m. radio, cop John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) accidentally strikes a conversation with his former fire-fighting father Frank (Dennis Quaid), who's been dead for 30 years. The conversation is plausibly made possible by a sky storm known as an aurora borealis which allows contact via airwaves between two co-existing time dimensions.

The plot progresses through both time dimensions as John and his father use the time separation to their advantage in many facets, which one can gather strictly from the previews. What the previews don't reflect is the transition from science-fiction time travel to murder thriller.

John uses his father to help prevent a series of murders, only to find that this completely alters ensuing life experiences and upsets the rather determined killer (Shawn Doyle). From this point on, the movie thickens as the father-son tandem try to solve this case and avoid life-altering changes.

For this viewer, it's nice to see Dennis Quaid back on the screen where he plays the part of the heroic dad well as expected, despite the out-of-character Queens accent. On the other hand, some of the other roles at times seem much too deliberate, spoon-feeders of the plot.. Also, makeup enhancement of the characters sometimes looked sloppy and unrealistic, but it is science-fiction.

Overall, director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) succeeds in presenting a fresh take on time travel while giving the audience a little more than just the typical "wow how times have changed" plot. For entertainment sake, it's a trip to the theater worth taking. -- Jake Lawhead


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