My wife and I recently watched Where the Heart Is, a 2000 romantic comedy (I guess?) starring a young Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd.
We were searching for something “light” after a tough week, and we came across this minor box office success. My wife mentioned that she had seen and enjoyed Where the Heart Is while in middle school and, defeated after futilely scanning, we figured what the hell. Truthfully, I’m a sucker for schmaltz and easy-to-swallow romantic comedies, quality be damned.
So…yeah, this is not that type of movie.
Instead of the simple, empowering story of young women overcoming the odds that this movie’s marketing promised me, what I got was two hours of surreal, almost-dreamlike nonsense that burns through at least 10 major plot arcs and half a dozen legendary actors. I am simply not familiar with anything like this in mainstream film; certainly there are weirder movies, but none of them are promoted as run-of-the-mill melodramas made for teenage girls. I was expecting Fried Green Tomatoes and somehow got Mulholland Drive.
Apparently this movie is based on a well-known book, which certainly explains why it steamrolls past story beats that would serve as the main plot of most other movies. But plenty of other movies have crammed a dense book’s worth of content into one too-short movie, and none of them came out so goddamn weird.
I can’t stop thinking about this movie’s weirdness, frankly. So here goes. Let’s just cover this whole fucking epic.
Our tale begins in a trailer park in Tennessee, where a pregnant, 17-year old Novalee Nation, played by Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, and her ne’er do well baby daddy Willy Jack are getting ready to relocate to California in an old Plymouth that Willy Jack bought for 80 dollars. Side note: I hope you like the names “Novalee Nation” and “Willy Jack Perkins” because they are hands-down the two most normal names you’re going to be hearing for the duration of this movie.
Novalee is a wide-eyed and naïve ingénue who has an irrational fear of the number five because her momma ran off with an umpire when Novalee was five and also someone once attacked her with a steak knife and Novalee needed 55 stitches to suture the wound or something.
Willy Jack is an incorrigible monster, chastising Novalee for having to use the bathroom, throwing his slushy through the rotted hole in the bottom of their car while driving on the highway, and waking up Novalee by singing directly into her ear and then calling her a pig the moment she wakes up.
Eventually Novalee loses her shoes through the aforementioned hole in the car. They stop in a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. Novalee runs in the store literally barefoot and pregnant, races to the bathroom, accosts a little girl trying to use the toilet, and then moans so loudly while peeing that the little girl runs out of the bathroom screaming for her mommy.
Novalee buys some shoes, but when her change comes back totaling exactly $5.55, she gets spooked and runs out to the parking lot without her change or her shoes only to find that, wouldn’t you know it, that no-good Willy Jack has fled the scene, leaving behind only Novalee’s Polaroid camera, which he presumably dropped through the car hole.
(A seasoned moviegoer might assume here that this will be the last we see of Willy Jack, that this is Novalee’s movie and Willy Jack’s only rightful role was to serve as the loathsome catalyst of the movie’s plot. But no. This is not the last we see of Willy Jack. Sweet Jesus is it not.)
Novalee collects herself on a bench in front of Wal-Mart when she is approached by Academy Award nominee and National Treasure Stockyard Channing playing a character named Sister Husband. That’s correct, Sister Husband, like she’s a fucking middle-aged Berenstain Bear. Sister Husband immediately mistakes Novalee for someone named Ruth Ann and will not listen as Novalee clearly explains several times that she is in fact not Ruth Ann. For absolutely no reason, Sister Husband gives Novalee a basket of maps and stickers and a full-ass buckeye tree because that’s exactly what a demonstrably poor and scared pregnant teenager needs.
Novalee heads back in the Wal-Mart and is sad-eating Ruffles right off the table when National Treasure Keith David, star of two of the greatest movies of the 80’s, approaches her and asks if she wants a picture of her baby. When Novalee acts confused — which is understandable because she doesn’t have a fucking baby yet — Keith David chortles and says no of course I meant in several months after you give birth because obviously that’s what I meant who would ever think otherwise? Keith David then introduces himself as Wal-Mart photographer Moses Whitecotton. Moses. Fucking. Whitecotton. He asks if she has a name for the baby. Novalee says Windi with an “i”, which is still pretty weird, but we’ll take it. But Moses says no that’s fucking terrible and tells Novalee to give the baby a “good, sturdy name.” This ultimately leads to Novalee calling the baby Americus. AMERICUS NATION. Like a fucking rejected character from American Gladiators.
Novalee lives in the Wal-Mart, sleeping on the camping gear and making detailed notes of everything she uses, including three different alarm clocks at once for some reason, to eventually pay Wal-Mart back. This is far and away the most comprehensible segment of the movie.
But then — Willy Jack is back! He’s cruising in his car, windows down, listening to tunes like a total bad ass when he passes a girl on the side of the road leaning over a smoking car engine. Well, boy does Old Willy get himself a right notion. He picks up this lonesome waif, explaining to her that he’s going to Las Vegas, which is not in California last time I checked. The young girl shows Willy her wad of cash, which appears to be no more than about 11 one-dollar bills, and Willy reacts like she just showed him the fucking Hope Diamond. He takes the money, shoves it down his crotch, and tells the hitchhiker to come get it. Before things gets too naughty, Willy is pulled over. Turns out the girl he picked up had just robbed a 7/11 and also is only 14 years old. Willy tries to run and is arrested. Surely, we think, this must be the end for Willy, the movie just wanted to give us closure on his story and show us that his life went to shit right after leaving Novalee. SURELY THE MOVIE WON’T CONTINUE HIS SAD, SORDID TALE!
Back with Novalee. She goes to the local library to learn how to care for her tree, because the well-being of an ugly ass shrub is clearly where the priorities of a homeless, pregnant, felony-committing teenager must lie. She meets the librarian, who dresses like a drug-addled, failed poet. He berates Novalee for her tree questions and generally treats her like absolute shit. His name is Forney Hull, which is the name a deranged sea captain would give to the bed on his boat where he has sex with his prostitutes. He cares for his alcoholic sister who lives in the attic of the library and loudly and violent screams at him exactly like Zelda tortures her younger sister in Pet Sematary. Anyway, Forney and Novalee eventually fall in love and get married.
Novalee goes back to Sister Husband and manages to convince Sister that she is not Ruth Ann. Novalee is welcomed in anyway and meets Sister’s sexual life partner Mr. Sprock (the recurring joke about Sister asking God to forgive her for the fornication she just then finished having on the kitchen table is the funniest part of the whole movie).
Determining that she would rather continue to live the life of a law-breaking vagabond in a department store than ask these clearly helpful angels to crash for the night, Novalee goes back to Wal-Mart, when, all alone at night during a thunderstorm, her water breaks and she goes into labor. Novalee falls to the floor in agony. This is the end for Novalee. But no! Ass hole librarian Forney has been watching Novalee, so HE JUMPS THROUGH THE WAL-MART WINDOW PANE like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. This is shot in slow motion and intercut with thunderclaps, lightning bolts, and Novalee’s tortured screams. John Woo thinks this scene is a bit much.
Forney’s career as a librarian somehow qualifies him to deliver babies, which he does safely and sight unseen. The next thing we do see, Novalee is in a hospital being cared for by nurse Lexie Coop, played by Ashley Judd, who looks so much like Katherine Heigl I can’t even focus. Seems Novalee is a celebrity now — she is even getting fan mail, including one letter from a crazy religious baby-stealing cult in Mississippi, a fact that will sadly become important later. In light of her fame, Wal-Mart gives Novalee 500 dollars and offers her a job. Lexie Coop asks Novalee what the fuck she was thinking naming her kid Americus (good question!) but Lexie’s a hypocrite because her kids are named after snack foods: Brownie, Cherry, Prailine and Baby Ruth. Jesus Godamn Christ.
By the way, we learn here that Forney is more or less unharmed from his journey through the window pane and his adventures in amateur midwifing. One can only then assume that he is not a man, but merely human tissue living over futuristic metal-alloy skeleton. Would explain his boring personality, frankly.
We just hit minute 30 on this movie.
Out of nowhere, two-time Academy Award winner and National Treasure Sally Field shows up and reveals that she is Novalee’s long-last mother. When an orderly tries to inform Sally Field that visiting hours are over, she grabs him violently by the testicles and squeezes his balls until he leaves. Sally Field — billed as Mama Lil, a win as far as names go in this movie — says that she is living in New Orleans and has come back to help Novalee raise her baby and also tell Novalee that she should have lived in Sears. Sally Field steals Novalee’s 500 dollar Wal-Mart windfall and disappears, never to be seen again for the rest of the movie.
Novalee goes to live with Sister Husband and Mr. Sprock. She bangs a hot-ass mechanic and there is a brief pregnancy scare subplot. Eventually Novalee buys an old camera and tells Moses Whitecotton she wants to be a photographer. The movie takes a brief detour to cut back to Willy Jack who is now in jail and has taken to pickin’ at the old git-ar. He’s working on a truly awful song called “Beatin’ Heart Blues” or something when his cell mate has had enough and promptly beats the shit of him. It’s understandable, really.
We have a flash-forward to Americus’ five-month birthday in December, when she is kidnapped by the religious cultists from Midnight, MISS-IP-EEE (watch the movie) who wrote Novalee a letter earlier. Novalee and Forney eventually find the baby placed in a manger. Forney hits a cop and is arrested. Americus, apparently impervious to hypothermia, is fine.
And now, to my bewilderment, we are back with our erstwhile Mr. Perkins, who am I slowly starting to realize is the second-most important character in this whole fucking movie. He is out of jail and in Nashville, ready to make the big time as a country star. He puts on his best cut-off flannel shirt and storms into the office of recording agent Ruth Meyers, played by two-time Academy Award nominee and National Treasure Joan Cusack. Rather than calling the police on this disgusting, disheveled interloper, Ruth Meyers tells the kid to give it his best shot, and Willy Jack, who heretofore had been presented as nothing more than a despicable, probably illiterate moron, starts to play a tender and earnest country tune he wrote. Truly, truly shitty and embarrassing, but earnest. Ruth Meyers signs him right on the spot. She then immediately gives him an expensive makeover and haircut, tells Willy Jack Perkins that his name is Billy Shadow now, and hands him a roll of quarters to shove down the front of his pants. His bulging fake penis doesn’t appease the crowd of rough and troubles at the honky tonk where Billy has his debut show, though. They throw a chair at Billy Shadow.
(Side note: As Ruth Meyers, Joan Cusack gets the one truly plausible name in the whole movie, but ruins it when she specifically demands that Billy Shadow call her by her first and last name at all times. Still, she’s Joan Cusack, and I will honor her wishes in this article.)
There is our second flash forward, this one over a period of several years. We are still with Billy Shadow, who is the phone with Ruth Meyers complaining about his lack of stardom. Ruth Meyers tells him to be patient, but not that patient because now it’s 10 seconds later and Billy Shadow is the hottest country star in the land. His hit single “Beat of the Heart” or whateverthefuck is so successful that Sister Husband back in Oklahoma has already memorized the words to it and is absentmindedly humming along when Novalee comes in and (you can see the joke coming from 10 miles away) says: “something about this guy’s voice just bothers me.” LOL.
Stockyard Channing is the best part of this movie, by the way, and at this point I would 100 percent donate to a GoFundMe for a prequel titled Sister Husband and the Fornication Farm.
ANWYAY, Novalee is photographing weddings now. She is on her way to a wedding for a job when the movie immediately cuts to a photograph of a bride being punched right in the face. Why? Who the fuck knows. There’s no time to answer because Sister Husband has appeared to just causally say OHHH BTW there’s a massive tornado coming.
Ok, folks so this is where the movie starts to get weird.
Sister Husband tells Novalee to get to the tornado cellar but also says she has to go bring the neighbor some potato soup right quick. As she says “be right back”, the camera pauses on Sister Husband’s expression just long enough to make me and movie goers the world over whisper to ourselves, “aww, shit, Sister Husband is gonna die!”
What proceeds is essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the opening scene of Twister. Novalee takes a now toddler-aged Americus down to the tornado shelter with some other families that we will meet here and then never see again. The whole crew is safe in the cellar, but there is no word of Sister Husband (or her fuck buddy Mr. Sprock, but this point is never addressed and he’s perfectly fine the next time we see him.) Novalee goes go find Sister Husband, but when she gets outside, she turns to find a FUCKING ENORMOUS tornado just barreling toward her. In the face of this unspeakably terrifying sight, Novalee betrays the same level of concern you or I might have for mayonnaise in the fridge that’s just a couple days past date. Shrugging, Novalee returns to the underground bunker, but no! She is too slow! The tornado is upon Novalee and she is nearly sucked into the abyss. Novalee grabs hold of the steps and her feet fly up in the air behind her. Americus screams as her she watches her mother nearly taken by the howling grip of this steel-grey vortex. Novalee pleads for her daughter to go sit back down; instead, Americus is sucked up by the tornado and is about to be thrown to her death before Novalee catches her in midair like fucking Ethan Hunt. The dramatic arc now resolved, the tornado moves on and all are safe.
Except for Sister Husband. She is dead. The next thing we see is Novalee crying on the funeral guest book.
But NBD: Novalee takes a picture of Americus in front of the buckeye tree from earlier that wasn’t affected by the tornado because of its significance of the plot. Moses Whitecotton loves the photo so much he inspires Novalee to send it in to a photo competition, which she wins.
A lawyer and a former AA acquaintance of Sister Husband shows up to inform Novalee that Sister Husband bequeathed her entire estate to Novalee in the amount of $41,000, an amount so high that it causes Lexie Coop, who just showed up because she is played by Ashley Judd and they need to get her in the movie at some point, to spit her soda all over the lawyer. 41K is enough to make Novalee the Queen of late 90’s Rural Oklahoma and she builds a giant house. Mr. Sprock shows up for the first time in forever, unfazed by the death of his love, to help with the build. When Novalee tells him that some of Sister Husband’s estate should have gone to him, Mr. Sprock says, in all seriousness, that it’s all cool because he got the kitchen table. The one they used to fuck on. He’s a sentimental guy, that Mr. Sprock.
Ok, so Billy Shadow is now in Santa Fe, and is such a big star that he’s meeting with hot-shot agent Johnny Desoto. Billy Shadow is apparently unhappy with his representation and wants someone with Desoto’s clout to represent him. “Clout” is Billy’s word; he keeps using it even though when we met this character, you’d be hard pressed to believe he knew the difference between “clout” and “gout”. Billy Shadow storms out of his meeting unsatisfied, and who brushes right past him at the same hotel? That’s right! His ex-flame Novalee Nation, who is in Santa Fe to collect her photography award. Billy doesn’t notice Novalee; later, we see him bringing a lady to his hotel room for some hot sexy action. Alas, Ruth Meyers is sitting on his bed after having broken in. Ruth Meyers tells the lady to get lost and when she refuses, violently tosses her ass out of the room. Ruth Meyers tells Billy some bad news: his old cell mate who used to beat the shit out of him is claiming he wrote “My Beating Heart” or whatever and is suing Billy Shadow. Billy is finished. In response, he attempts to have sex with Ruth Meyers, but Ruth Meyers punches him right in the face. So long Ruth Meyers, so long Joan Cusack and Stockyard Channing and Sally Field. This movie is getting grim — Keith David better be coming back soon.
Where are we? Barely-in-this-movie-at-all Ashley Judd picks up Novalee at the airport, and tells her she has a new boyfriend.
Oh God, this next part.
I don’t want to make jokes about this part. I’ll recount what happens, because its existence contributes to the pervading strangeness that completely suffocates this movie, but I’ll drop the snark. (Be warned: triggering language ahead.) Novalee gets a call from one of Lexie’s kids. Something is wrong. Novalee rushes over there and finds the house a mess. Lexie and her two kids are in the bedroom covered in blood. Later we find out through a tear-soaked monologue — highlighted, in fairness, by a stunning piece of acting by Judd that is way better than this movie deserves — that Lexie came home to find her new boyfriend trying to rape her kids, and when she tried to stop him, he attacked her.
Look, there are movies that can handle this subject matter with the deftness and sensitivity that it requires; needless to say, Where the Heart Is ain’t one of them.
Let’s get back on track.
Novalee invited Lexie and her children to come live in her house, which is sweet but no where near as nice as back in the go old days of Sister Husband banging it out on the kitchen table with Mr. Sprock and then praying the sin away over breakfast pancakes. Sigh.
We go back to Forney, who I haven’t mentioned much in this article given how much screen time he has, but which makes sense because he is a boring ass hole. Anyway, if you recall from 32,000 words ago, Forney has a sister living in a room on the top floor like Bertha Mason. She dies. This is a moment that is supposed to hit emotionally but doesn’t because we’ve only seen this character once for about 11 seconds. Is she ever given a name? I don’t remember. Forney skips the funeral and hides in a hotel downtown. Novalee tracks him down there and they have sex. Post coitus, Forney says he loves Novalee and she says nothing.
This article is getting out of control. Let’s rapid-fire some plot developments.
· Lexie marries a middle-aged exterminator who traded an antique car for his ex-wife’s daughter, and she gets pregnant again. One can only assume the child will be named Salt and Vinegar Pringles.
· Novalee takes a photo of an adult softball team and she straight-up fat shames the whole damn team right in front of their fat fucking faces.
· In despair, Forney returns to Maine to attend Bowdoin.
FUCKING FINALLY WILLY JACK IS BACK, BABY. Billy Shadow is no more and Willy Jack is a drop-down drunk who’s working on his mullet again. While at a rest-stop with some new woman, a drunk and despondent Willy Jack stumbles out of the car and sees a train. Transfixed, he walks toward the train. But he trips over a fence and falls face first into the side of train car. He starts hallucinating about Novalee and passes out on the tracks. If you’ve made it this far you know what’s about to happen. That’s right: A FUCKING TRAIN RUNS OVER WILLY JACK AND RIPS OFF HIS LEGS.
Novalee happens upon a newspaper a few months later on Americus’ fifth birthday and discovers Willie Jack has no legs. (Wait a second: No legs. Sally Field. Southern picaresque? Goddamnit, this movie is just Forrest Gump.) She goes to visit him. (Does she know that her ex had become a major country music star? No idea.) Anyway, Novalee tells Willy Jack to stay away from Americus and he says OF COURSE I’M STAYIN AWAY, LOOK AT MY STUMPS! and shows Novalee his mangled legs.
Somehow this whole ordeal causes Novalee to realize that he she does love Forney so she drives to Maine.
(I’ve realized that this movie could have excised Willy Jack Perkins/Billy Shadow’s entire storyline — his absolutely insane, convoluted, epic-novel length storyline — and this moment would have worked exactly the same. Why couldn’t Willy Jack just have disappeared after he left Novalee at the Wal-Mart and then not reappeared until Novalee came across a newspaper article about him years later? She could have gone to visit him, giving that story closure, and providing Novalee the impetus to go get Forney. I mean, I’m the president of the Put Joan Cusack in Every Movie club, and even I think her role was superfluous.)
So Novalee is at Bowdoin and tracks down Forney. Recall that Forney is in his 30s and is a personality vacuum and a prick — this doesn’t matter because he is surrounded by gorgeous college students who apparently find a dour librarian from Oklahoma the most interesting man in the world. I count no less than 3 attractive women who look like they are champing at the bit to suck Forney’s face. None of this matters though, because Novalee confesses to Forney that she loves him, and Forney kisses her and throws all of his collegiate dreams in the garbage and moves back to Oklahoma. They get married at the same Wal-Mart and Moses Whitecotton photographs the wedding.