Part of that weird 80s and 90s subgenre of rich people having to interact with the homeless, John Boorman’s Where the Heart Is is actually one of the more successful efforts, in the lines of Mel Brooks‘ Life Stinks. It’s more clear-eyed and realistic in its portrayal of the issue while having something to say that is beyond bromides about how the mentally ill homeless are more in touch with the human experience than stodgy well-off people. That did seem like something Boorman could have fallen into, but despite a certain unevenness in his filmography, Boorman is an intelligent filmmaker who goes beyond the simplistic with a clear-eyed view of what he wants to say. It’s similar to Terry Gilliam‘s The Fisher King in that way with similar material.
Stewart McBain (Dabney Coleman) is the head of a demolitions business in New York who is having a field day with all the work he’s getting as the city demolishes older buildings in favor of newer skyscrapers. There’s a hitch at a new site, though, where The Dutch House, a rundown, old building, has been targeted by protesters to preserve, a fight they win by getting the city to label it as historic. This puts a huge crimp in his business since he’s on the hook for the entire site, and when Daphne (Uma Thurman) shows up and blithely joins in the protest just to mess with her father, it gets the gears going in his head. They continue when he goes to the presentation of Chloe (Suzi Amis), his other daughter, and her school project of painting on Daphne and blending her into painted backgrounds. His third child, Jimmy (David Hewlett), is a computer guy who helps Chloe with her presentation, and it’s all just too much for Stewart, so he decides to kick all three out of his house, give them a lesson in the real world, and puts them in The Dutch House.
Off the bat, it’s easy to see how this fits in with Boorman’s body of work. A cast of characters cast out from the modern world, set to find a way in a more primitive environment. The main difference is that its set in an American city (though the script was originally written for London) and that it’s a comedy. I guess I see it more as a dramatic film with comedic elements, so maybe that’s why I appreciate it more than the general consensus. I laughed little, but the dramatics of the film, along with the aesthetics of the visuals, struck a minor chord with me.
The dramatics are around the children’s efforts to forge a new life away from their parents, using the skills they have. Daphne picks up a retired magician who’s now homeless, The Shit (Christopher Plummer). Chloe decides that she’ll compromise the purity of her art by taking the insurance calendar job she’d been offered. Jimmy brings in his best friend, Tom (Dylan Walsh), a stockbroker, to be their tenant, and they also invite their fellow student, the dressmaker Lionel (Crispin Glover) with promises of payment once his fashion show happens and he gets a contract. Once Plummer’s character was introduced, I was convinced that the film was going to descend into the silliness that defined Mel Brooks’ effort in the genre, especially with Plummer’s interesting choice to play the role drunk and with a raspy voice, but he never becomes the borderline mystical purveyor of lost wisdom. He’s almost purely a comic character who only has a real effect on Stewart’s wife, Jean (Joanna Cassidy) with whom he develops a playful relationship.
The children pool their resources, have ups and downs, but they mostly make a go of it, punctuated by visuals of the interior of the Dutch House growing increasingly colorful with Chloe painting the walls as her backdrops, Jimmy designs a video game about escaping from a building in the process of demolition, and Lionel finishes his designs. In the background is Stewart’s issues with keeping control of his business in the face of the issues of the site that the Dutch House stands upon, a situation that Tom takes advantage of, riding the ups and downs of the company’s stock to making a lot of money. Since he has an insight into the eventual collapse of the company and the ruination of the McBain family, there’s a bit of drama about it, but when the entire market collapses, it recasts everything in a new light.
The film comes to pretty much the same conclusion, in much the same visual way, as Hope and Glory, including Stewart taking on the Grandpa George role and even his positioning in frame as he lays down on the grass. There’s an embrace of the pastoral as the ideal (it’s almost Terrence Malick-like in that regard) that eschews the more obvious and unbelievable message that these movies tend to embrace. It’s about finding worth in people, like those movies, but without the idiotic take that money doesn’t mean anything. The children make their way in the world by selling out, to be honest, by finding a way to bring their passions to things that will pay them. It’s a message that I can see resonating with Boorman, who did make movies that may not have seemed to resonate with him from the start (perhaps Deliverance started like this), but he brought his passion to it and made it his own nonetheless.
And that kind of feels like this movie as well. It’s far from his most successful work, and I can see how the elements align in a way that many people would reject. However, I find it somewhat delightful, especially as it moved into its third act. I kept bouncing around in my head if I thought it was pretty good or just misguided and not entirely successful, but the third act just clicked with me. There’s something about this family coming together to apply their art to make some money and find a way through some tough times, connecting on a deeper level that just worked. It’s one of those situations where I can’t figure out where the disconnect is. Is it me? Or was it the initial negative reception of the film, perhaps in no small part because it flies in the face of some of the conventions of this tiny subgenre, more accurate? I don’t know. I just know that I liked it, I like it more as it went, and I’m happy that I saw it.