If nothing else, this insipid movie should gain some sort of consolation prize for its bizarrely named characters. Natalie Portman's Novalee Nation, daughter of Mama Lil, names her own offspring Americus. Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd) christens her brood after sweets (Praline, Brownie, etc). Then there's the kindly black man, appearing once in a while to encourage Novalee to become a photographer, who goes by the name of Moses Whitecotten. Finally, there's Portman's tedious romantic interest, a shy librarian named Forney Hull.
Adapted from Billie Letts' bestselling novel, Matt Williams' tale of triumph over tragedy is Hollywood at its most sentimental and superficial. The screenplay, courtesy of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, presents the viewer with a catalogue of catastrophes and contrivances, all coated with feelgood inanity. During two, long hours we're treated to a miraculous birth, a tornado, Christian kidnappers, assorted deaths, child abuse, an alcoholic, bed-ridden sister and - a personal favourite, this - leg amputation by a freight train.
True, Where The Heart Is scores liberal brownie points by suggesting that families don't have to be blood relatives. The storytelling, though, is cluttered, making huge leaps in time to the next dramatic life-lesson while never stopping to examine the characters' emotions. Instead, the scriptwriters trot out such platitudes as: "We've all got meanness in us, but we've all got good as well."
Worst of all, Where The Heart Is patronises its blue-collar subject matter. Portman is a talented actress, but her figure, complexion, make-up and coiffure suggest an A-list model rather than a runaway single-mother with low self-esteem. It's the same with the wisecracking Judd, implausible as the working class mother of five kids. Still, at least Wal-Mart won't be complaining about the free advertising.
A poor choice for Natalie Portman, who's a fish out of water in this contrived melodrama. Sketchily characterised and assembled, it's like a TV mini series masquerading as a feature film. Stay home because, for once, that's Where The Heart Isn't.