Hello, Harry here. And before I hand you over to Moriarty, I want to give you a brief idea of what I thought of this film and why I haven't written a review. Moriarty and I were at the HARLEY DAVIDSON CAFE after the screening, and I was near tears at my disappointment and frustration about this film. You see.. first it is a movie shot in Austin, Texas. I have multiple friends that are in this movie. Before going in I had some very kind words with Tom Sherak and from his introduction and the very fact that they were highlighting this film over all others in their slate... I just felt that this had to be a perfect jewel. Instead, it's a diamond in the rough. In a perfect world, Fox would hold this film for November release. This film is so close to being a wonderful perfect film, that it's mistakes stand out like a gigantic sore thumb. And while Moriarty and I were talking about this... The cell phone rings... it's my father... my grandmother had just passed away. My great grandaunt wants me to handle the funeral arrangements and coordinate things and... suddenly my life is thrown into a weird damn spiral. From lapdances to death. The absurdity of this town was at no point more clear. So tonight, I've spent my time calling family members and arranging things. As for WHERE THE HEART IS... Mr Sherak, you have an almost film that could be fixed. Listen to what Moriarty has to say here. Don't rush this film. With the right campaign there could be Oscar nominations in the film's future... but it needs to be fixed. I implore you... if you care for this film... don't just dump it in April. Care for it. Work on it. It's frustratingly close.
It's not often that the studios screen whole movies at ShoWest. True, last year Disney showed us TARZAN before having Phil Collins come out and play an entire concert, but from what I understand, it's usually only at ShoEast that they do major screenings. Why would a studio break tradition? Why would they decide to show an entire movie to the delegates that are here from around the world?
That's the question Tom Sherak addressed from the stage of the Le Theatre Des Arts tonight. Harry and I actually bumped into him in line outside the screening and he was very gracious, talking with us about the movie, shooting in Austin, and the convention in general. I think it's important for us to meet these guys, to show them who we are, and to open this sort of dialogue. It's important because it increases the chance of them understanding us and our process, and realizing we're not the bad guys. It's easy to hate someone you've never spoken to, but when you put a real human face to a name, it becomes far more complicated.
I know I have a very different opinion of Sherak tonight after watching how he handled himself. He was the very model of grace under pressure. He started the evening onstage answering the questions I posted above. He talked about the experience of seeing a film and realizing it wasn't what you expected it to be, but was in fact richer, better. He talked of feeling pride in something they'd created, and he spoke of wanting to share that special little gem with people to start word of mouth. Considering that's always been our philosophy at AICN, it was nice to hear it come out of someone like him. He brought up Matt Williams, the director of the film, to speak for a moment.
Williams, for those of you unfamiliar with his name, was a writer for THE COSBY SHOW, was the creator of HOME IMPROVEMENT, and was a primary creative force on ROSEANNE. This last endeavor was the one that created whatever expectations I had for the film tonight. When Williams was one of the key creative staff members on ROSEANNE, it was one of the most honest shows about American families on TV. They weren't rich, they didn't live in some impossible house, and they frequently didn't get what they wanted. He was responsible for helping find that honest heart to the show, and I was hoping he would bring that to this film, especially after both he and Sherak spoke about it in such proud, paternal tones.
When the film started, the picture was seriously out of frame, and it took a couple of minutes for someone to try and adjust it. When they did, something bizarre happened, and the soundtrack actually got out of sync as the film doubled back and we saw the same sequence twice. Finally, the lights came back up and Tom Sherak took the stage again. Here's where he really won me over. Some guys would have been screaming at the tech crew, freaking out, but not Sherak. Instead, he actually took the mic and started telling jokes to keep the audience entertained. He came across as this charming guy who really cared about the audience and their reaction to the movie. It was a hero move, and he handled it incredibly well. It was only about five minutes before they gave him the signal to start the film again, and they started it over, this time with no technical glitches at all.
After all that, I wish I could say that the buzz starts here. I wish I could say I loved the film. I don't, though, and it kills me. The film is loaded with good performances, and the screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel has moments of piercing truth. It's based on a novel by Billie Letts, and that might be part of what's wrong here. There's an episodic nature to the film, a rhythm that just doesn't work, and it kills any emotional momentum the film develops time and time again.
To discuss it, I sort of have to spoil things, so if you want to hit it fresh, let me just say that this might be rewarding for a totally undemanding viewer, for someone who just wants to go and get a few chuckles and enjoy a little slice of country life. If that's you, then ignore me. Just go see it and forget I said anything. If you have any real expectations for this based on the cast or the pedigree, though, then read on.
Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) is a girl who's never had luck with people or with the number 5. Her mother abandoned her when she was 5, and someone once stabbed her badly enough to require 55 stitches. At the film's beginning, she's pregnant and hitting this road with her louse of a boyfriend, Willie Jack (Dylan Bruno). He quickly dumps her in a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma, though, and she finds herself living in it through a series of circumstances. She begins to meet people in her small town, including a local librarian named Forney Hull. I'd tell you the actor's name, but I'm not sure the IMDb has it right. Ray Prewitt just doesn't sound right. Anyway, when Novalee has her baby in the Wal-Mart, she becomes a bit of a celebrity. She meets a free-spirited nurse named Lexie (Ashley Judd) and a local eccentric named Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) who become her de facto family when her long-lost mother (Sally Field) turns up, steals Novalee's money, and vanishes again.
There's moments in this opening stretch that are really pretty great. Natalie Portman is luminescent here, a star of the highest magnitude. There's a fragile quality to her that disguises some startling strength, and she never lets you catch her acting. Same thing with the stunning Ms. Judd. Their scenes together are alive, funny and sweet, and it's some of the best stuff in the film.
It's once Novalee gets out of the hospital with her new daughter Americus that things begin to slip. Williams and his screenwriters made the decision to intercut Novalee's story with that of her absent boyfriend Willie Jack, and it's an epic miscalculation. Not only is Dylan Bruno a boring actor, he's playing a boring character. Every single time we cut to him, all we can think of is getting back to her. Even the presence of Joan Cusack in his storyline doesn't help, and when you can't make good use of Joan Cusack, a true comic goddess, there's something deadly wrong.
Time passes in the blink of an eye in this film. Characters die off camera so that we barely feel their passing. Bad luck seems to be heaped on the main characters for no other reason than to keep the movie moving. And even through all that, there are things worth seeing, moments worth sharing. This is the most frustrating kind of film, an almost, a might have been. With a little more control and a more focused screenplay, Williams could have ripped our hearts out. Instead, he proves that he doesn't know where the heart is. His aim is off, and it's a damn shame.
Stockard Channing, the guy who played Forney, Ashley Judd, and especially Portman all deserve special mention. Their work couldn't possibly be any better. If you want to just see them and you don't care about the context, then check the film out. If you're a fan of the novel, you may like the movie. Then again, based on the flow of the thing, it feels like there are giant chunks missing, so you just might hate it. Whatever the case, I don't think this is the sleeper hit Fox was hoping for. I just don't think it's strong enough, and I can't imagine I was alone in my disappointment this evening. As we all filed out of the theater, Fox gave us these beautiful limited edition lithographs from TITAN A.E. and copies of the WHERE THE HEART IS soundtrack. I felt bad as I walked away. When a studio lays themself out there like this, you want to see them pull it off. I don't think this film will ruin their year one way or another, especially since Harry and I saw another Fox summer movie recently in an adventure that we'll be telling you about in the next few days. Right now, I have to start packing up. Tomorrow's my last day in Vegas. Harry's bailing out before the Fox lunch so he can get to South By Southwest. Me, I've got X-MEN and CASTAWAY footage to report on. Until then...