Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Family matters

John Boorman's enchanted comedy "Where the Heart Is" sings the praises of hearth and home.


Charles Taylor
December 14, 1998 11:08PM (UTC)

John Boorman's charmed family comedy "Where the Heart Is" is an
attempt to create something like the atmosphere of "A Midsummer Night's
Dream" in modern New York, with a deserted lot in Brooklyn serving as
the enchanted Athenian wood. And at the center of the movie is a Lear-like
figure given the chance to redeem his folly and enter his kingdom once
again.

Boorman's previous movie, "Hope and Glory," a child's-eye view of
Blitz London, explained how his vision was shaped: Who could settle for
ordinary life after growing up in the middle of such an adventure, all the
while anchored by the security of a loving family? The characters in "Where
the Heart Is" don't become a family -- "bodies turning in harmonious
orbit," to use the director's phrase -- until they transform their world
into a place where magic can live. Released in 1990, "Where the Heart Is"
has some of the madness of Boorman's earlier films, many of them mythic
visions of quest and adventure. But it's shot through with the expansive,
generous humor he unveiled in "Hope and Glory." Boorman has complete faith
that he can bring off this fantastical enterprise. The film has a high-flown giddiness, like a toy that Boorman keeps effortlessly aloft.

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The opening credits set the tone perfectly: a pen-and-ink sketch of the
Manhattan skyline colored in by an artist's hand until it's almost an
abstract swirl of color. It's the kind of picture an exceptionally gifted
child might paint. Boorman then dissolves to a beautifully detailed brick
building, giving us a few seconds to drink it in before it implodes and
crumbles before our eyes. The destruction is the work of Stewart McBain
(Dabney Coleman), the demolitions expert who waves his hands rhapsodically
before the whole works like a delighted orchestra conductor. He's only
really happy when he's bringing things down. Stewart's sour nature comes
out fully when demonstrators succeed in getting the Dutch House -- a
Brooklyn tenement that happens to be the last building on a lot he's
clearing for a lucrative construction deal -- declared a historical
landmark.

"Where the Heart Is" is the story of what results from Stewart's lousy
day. After butting heads with his daughter Daphne (Uma Thurman), his
unemployed son, Jimmy (David Hewlett), and his wife, Jean (Joanna Cassidy), he
attends the art show where his other daughter, Chloe (the translucent Suzy
Amis), unveils her senior project: a film of her trompe l'oeil paintings
with live, painted models blending into her backgrounds, and prominently
featuring both Chloe and her sister, nude. Mortified, and deciding his kids
need a lesson in the real world, Stewart deposits the three of them at the
Dutch House and announces that this is their new home; from now on they'll
have to manage on their own.

It takes a little while to see where Boorman is headed with this
material because his sensibility appears at first to be divided. The shots
of imploding buildings are rapt images of the aesthetic beauty of
destruction, and Stewart seems to embrace Boorman's notion that creation
begins in destruction (as it does in the rubble of "Hope and Glory," or in
the chaos that confronts Patricia Arquette as an American caught in the
turmoil of Burma in "Beyond Rangoon"). And when Stewart lectures his kids
on how they need to learn to survive and exiles them from their
comfortable, modern home, he seems to be echoing the director's favorite
theme -- the need to keep your spirit alive in the soulless modern world.
But it's Stewart who remains in the world that Boorman finds so stifling.
"Where the Heart Is" turns out not to be the story of how his kids
accept the thin gruel of reality, but how they turn their new world into a
banquet by relying on the very things their father hoped to scare out of
them: fancifulness, willfulness, refusal to do work that doesn't interest
them.

What's wonderful about Daphne, Chloe and Jimmy is how impractical they
are. They hit on the idea of each convincing a friend to join the household
and pay rent. But only Jimmy's stockbroker pal Tom (Dylan Walsh) can do
that. Chloe's friend Lionel (Crispin Glover), a budding fashion designer
working on his first collection, and Daphne's contribution, The Shit
(Christopher Plummer), a shambling, hoarse-voiced old bum and former
magician, have zilch. And when Chloe accepts an offer she originally turned
down to create a calendar for an insurance company, she spends the last of
their money buying paint. But her project turns out to be the heart of the
movie, Boorman's metaphor for an artist's ability to turn work for hire
into a vehicle for personal expression. (That has special meaning here.
After agreeing to finance the movie if Boorman changed the setting from
London to New York, Touchstone, unable to comprehend what they got for
their money, dumped it on the market and sent the director copies of only
the negative reviews.) Nothing Boorman and his production team come up
with is more amazing than Chloe's paintings, which were created by
artist Timna Woollard. In them, Chloe becomes a Picasso, Lionel a Rousseau
native, Jimmy a Cupid with his arrow pointed at the heart of a Botticelli
nude.

Chloe's paintings become a metaphor for the way the spirit let loose in
the Dutch House gathers everyone into its embrace, including Stewart and
Jean. There's something wonderfully egalitarian in the way circumstances
conspire to bring everyone down, and something instinctively generous in
the way they all wind up at the Dutch House. Seen at night from the
outside, the Dutch House looks like a refuge on some desolate plain. Inside,
the rooms glow with soft, warm lighting while the assembled group dances or
lounges around, talking and laughing. The movie is a feast of felicities,
like Linda Matheson's marvelous costumes -- gowns of lace and velvet and
crepe, lamé capes, bandannas and beads, plumed hats, even a
tri-con trimmed in gold braid -- and Carol Spier's production design, which
gives the Dutch House an air of baroque decrepitude. Peter Suschitzky
shoots the smoldering scrap heaps of the urban wasteland that surrounds the
house as if they were a primitive place the characters have journeyed to
where they reclaim the spark they've lost.

Each of those characters is awash in a particular affectation, which is
what Boorman loves about them. "Where the Heart Is" has some of the best
ensemble comic acting of any film since Robert Altman's heyday. Thurman
and Amis, both terrifically funny and stunningly beautiful, embody the
picture's chic and graceful soul. Squeezing out words like "couture"
between his pursed lips, Glover has an almost Victorian demureness.
Plummer gives a loose-limbed performance alive with the
pleasure of an actor discovering the tricks still left in him. And Coleman
goes beyond his trademark gleeful nastiness to delve into a man trying to
discover who he is after a lifetime of false security, and trying to
express the wonder and gratitude that the thought of his children fills him
with.

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Written with his daughter, the late Telsche Boorman, "Where the Heart
Is" was intended as an affectionate and amused portrait of Boorman's own
children and their friends. What he came up with was a poetic farce about
the mysterious bonds of family, and the way those bonds are strengthened as
they are allowed to become more flexible. The family values the film
embraces are individuality rather than self-effacement, instinct rather
than tradition, and sensuous, uncorseted joy. The film's finale, set on a
rural riverside estate that has the idyllic tranquillity of paradise
regained, has the characters twirling around the dance floor, changing
partners until each is suitably paired off. And in the midst of them is
Stewart, with the awkwardness of a man trying to re-learn the steps he'd
almost forgotten, but the relief of one who finds himself back in the
dance.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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