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ACTORS AMIABLE, BUT STORY LOSES 'HEART'.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

Say this for ``Where the Heart Is'': With child abuse, battered women, alcoholism, a tornado and dismemberment by railroad car, matters are rarely dull here. Set in an Oklahoma town where life never seems to be OK (where's Gordon MacRae when you need him?), the movie has a lifetime of tragedy - but nary a moment of authenticity - rolled up into its two-hour running time.

The movie is based on Billie Letts' 1996 best seller about 17-year-old Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), a young woman who has ``never lived any place that didn't have wheels under it.'' Novalee is very pregnant when we first meet her and about to embark on a cross-country move with her good-looking, shifty boyfriend, Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno). When the two stop at a local Wal-Mart, Willy Jack has second thoughts about fatherhood and drives off, leaving Novalee to fend for herself.

Fend, she does. Novalee finds that a Wal-Mart has everything a young girl needs - except a doctor when her water breaks. Thus after living in the store's camping section and shopping its food aisles for sustenance, Novalee is whisked off to the hospital where she gives birth to the ``Wal- Mart'' baby and becomes a tabloid heroine.

Novalee's fame is short-lived, but it does bring her a surrogate family in the form of an eccentric do-gooder (Stockard Channing) and a single mother nurse, Lexie, (Ashley Judd, appealing as ever). The film quickly evolves into a coming-of-age story as we watch Novalee mature from an uneducated teen-ager to an accomplished young woman, able to take care of others as well as herself.

The movie is sweet-natured enough, but when its litany of tragedies demands a tougher tone, the script (by Ron Howard veterans Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) fails to deliver the much-needed veracity. And Portman, one of the screen's most polished young performers, isn't entirely believable playing an uncertain young woman. This is an actress whose dominant quality is self-awareness, and Novalee is nothing if not oblivious, in the first third of the film.

Portman, Judd and Channing all deliver sympathetic performances, and James Frain is likable as Novalee's shy, librarian suitor. The movie occasionally goes back to the Willy Jack character, an aspiring country singer, who hooks up with a no-nonsense Nashville manager (Joan Cusack in an amusing comic turn). That Willy Jack will get his comeuppance is a given, as are most of the events in this amiable film. Predictability seems to go hand in hand with misfortune here.

THE FACTS

--The film: ``Where the Heart Is'' (PG-13; adult situations).

--The stars: Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, James Frain, Joan Cusack.

--Behind the scenes: Directed by Matt Williams; screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Released by 20th Century Fox.

--Running time: Two hours.

--Playing: Citywide.

--Our rating: Two and one half stars.

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo: Teen mom Novalee (Natalie Portman, left) finds herself comforting Lexie, a troubled single mother and nurse (Ashley Judd), in the good-natured yet predictable ``Where the Heart Is.''

Box: THE FACTS (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Apr 28, 2000
Words:513
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