There have been many of what one would call "chick" flicks in the past year. Some (er, well...one) was wonderful ("Tumbleweeds") and at the opposite end was "Anywhere But Here" and "Here On Earth", the last one particularly being the worst of the set. "Where The Heart Is" falls somewhere in the middle of it. Apparently from a bestselling novel and Oprah "Book Of The Month" pick, the movie thankfully contains good enough actors to liven the only partially successful material.
Natalie Portman ("The Phantom Menace", "The Professional") stars as Novalee Nation, a young, pregnant girl who is left at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma as the film begins by her jerk of a boyfriend. With nowhere else to go, she finds herself living in that Wal-Mart (not the best place to stay, but look at those low prices...). She finds herself adopted by an extended family that includes a local sister and nurse named Lexie(Ashley Judd).
The film starts off awkwardly, but once it gets a little lighter, it starts to get its act together. The script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel has its share of flat dialogue, but thankfully, it never gets too sappy. Although the two have had some great scripts in the past ("League of Their Own"), the funniest thing they've done recently is the DVD commentary on Ron Howard's "ED TV". The direction by first-timer Matt Williams isn't remarkable in any way, and the story awkwardly bounces between light and dark moments(some of which are pretty dark for a PG-13 film). We also follow her jerk of a boyfriend in a separate plot thread; he's a completely unsympathetic character that we don't need to see after the opening; his plot (apparently he wants to be a singer of some sort) gets in the way of the characters that are more fully-written.
I dread to think of what this film would have been had Portman not been cast in the lead role. A natural performance that makes us care about what happens to her, Portman makes Novalee a sympathetic and enjoyable character to follow. Ashley Judd also is able to light up the screen with her smile in a small role. I get the sense that the studio tried to provide first-time director Williams with a solid crew as well; cinematography is from "Shakespeare In Love"'s Richard Greatrux and the score is from Mason Daring, whose work I enjoyed greatly in John Sayles' "Secret Of Roan Inish". The film's one visual effect, a tornado, is decently done by Cinesite.
To make a long story short, "Where The Heart Is" contains some enjoyable characters, but I'd almost like to take them out of this tale, rework the story in a few places, cut the length a bit and place them back in to start all over differently and see how it goes. The film as is is something that's more of something I'd recommend as a rental. Flawed, but better than the trailers had made it look.
VIDEO: Fox has certainly stepped up to improve their efforts in the past few months, and although "Where The Heart Is" isn't their best recent work (that title still goes to "The Beach"), I doubt anyone will find much to complain about with the presentation for this film. The look of the film reminded me of the sort of warm light and rich colors that "Here On Earth" tried for, but thankfully, doesn't go for the soft focus that "Earth" did. This film also boasts a fine cinematographer in Richard Greatrex, whose work some might be familiar with from that little movie called "Shakespeare In Love".
Sharpness is quite solid throughout the movie. Again, I was pleased that the film didn't try to go for soft focus, which is something that annoys me. Detail is very good as well even in darker sequences, and clarity is never lacking, as well.
Problems are very minor; a speckle or two on the print used and a couple of very small, very brief instances of pixelation. Nothing that's going to prove at all distracting. Colors are impressive, looking rich and very well-saturated. Again, Fox has made noticable improvements lately, and "Where The Heart Is" continues that trend. While it's not Fox's "The Beach" or "Fight Club"(the two of which still stand as two of the best discs in terms of image quality I've seen all year), it's still above-average.
SOUND: Of course, the one scene that everyone will turn to in terms of sound will be the tornado sequence. Not the best special effect I've ever seen, but I'm certainly not complaining in the least about the audio for it, which provides some very powerful bass and good use of the surrounds as the winds whip through. While that's pretty much the only intense sequence in the film, there are a number of other scenes that use the surrounds nicely for ambient sounds. A couple of showers in the film also convincingly put the viewer in the middle of the rain. The score by Mason Daring is warm and crisp, sounding clear throughout. Dialogue is also, with few exceptions, easily heard.
MENUS:: Menus are non-animated, with very basic images serving as backgrounds.
EXTRAS: The trailer(Full-Frame/Dolby 2.0) that makes the film look like more of a comedy than it is; the TV spot; 30 second promotional ad for the soundtrack and music video.
Final Thoughts: With not much else in the way of new releases lately, "Where The Heart Is" may make for a decent rental. It's the kind of film where it's not a total loss and some re-working here or there may have made for a more enjoyable film than the final product.
The Film ** 1/2/****
Video 93/A = (372/400 possible points)
Audio: 89/B+ = (356/400 possible points)
Extras: 80/B- = (240/300 possible points)
Menus: 80/B- = (160/200 possible points)
Value: 82/B = (246/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: ** 1/2/****
DVD GRADE: B