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MOVIE REVIEW

'The Heart' is without soul and hope

Maybe ''The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," but the movie of that title is vile beyond redemption.

Anyone who has followed publishing news over the past six months knows that JT LeRoy is the other trauma-memoir fraud du jour. Maybe he wasn't spanked on national TV by Oprah Winfrey, as James Frey was, but investigative articles in New York magazine and The New York Times effectively dispelled the author's mysterioso aura, revealing the supposedly teenage, male, HIV-infected survivor of childhood abuse to be a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert who made the whole thing up.

The news left Hollywood hipsters who had clustered around the reclusive ''LeRoy" looking like idiots, with some defending the imposture as a cracked form of conceptual art -- i.e., lying with style -- and others stuck with appearing in the film that has been made from Albert's stories. Production began before the truth came out, but no matter: as written and directed by its star, Asia Argento, the movie's impossible to respect anyway.

Adapted from the ''autobiographical" short story collection of the same title, ''Heart" has been turned into a slick, linear tale of childhood degradation unrelieved by hope. When we first meet 7-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett), he's been wrested from his foster parents by his birth mother, Sarah (Argento), a human train wreck who makes Courtney Love look like the Lamb of God. At first the boy continually screams to be returned home, but once the two hit the road, he slowly becomes numbed and accepting.

There's a lot to accept. Sarah swallows anything that'll make her high (she's kind enough to share her stash with her son) and shags anything in pants. Some of the many men that pass through their lives beat Jeremiah; at least one of them rapes him. These scenes are simply excruciating to watch for anyone with either children or a heart.

The straight world to which Jeremiah escapes from time to time is no less unkind, and when he's taken to live with his grandfather (Peter Fonda), a control-freak Christian minister who talks in a creepy brimstone whisper, we're meant to witness the roots of Sarah's own damage. During this time, the boy grows into a young teenager (played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse of the Disney Channel's ''The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" -- Walt must be doing loop-de-loops in his freezer) and gets brainwashed into a pint-size street-corner evangelist. Mama kidnaps him again and it's off to another round of basement meth labs and truck-stop prostitution. There's an ending, but it's unremittingly bleak. You could stay home and have a better time slitting your wrists.

OK, I'll bite: Shouldn't art confront us with that from which we shrink? Shouldn't it give us the bad news as well as the good? Yes, but there's a shell game going on here that's rooted in the lies of JT LeRoy. ''Palindromes" and ''Mysterious Skin" are just two recent movies that depict the horrific abuse of children in ways that are painful to watch yet offer a window into the souls of both victims and victimizers; both films acknowledge coping with the unthinkable as its own wracked form of grace.

''The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things" isn't very interested in Jeremiah, though. He's a blank slate -- a plastic baby Jesus on his way to the cross. Argento is the daughter of Italian horror master Dario Argento (in whose movies she has appeared), and she has a sizable cult following for her own directorial efforts (2000's ''Scarlet Diva"), appearances in films like ''XXX" and ''Queen Margot," and a general brainiac bad-girl status. She throws herself into her role with hellcat abandon, unafraid to make the character unsympathetic in a larger bid for pity.

And there's the problem: Sarah, not Jeremiah, is the true focus of both Laura Albert's prose and Argento's movie. They're both slumming it in a fantasy of gutter-chic nihilism under the pretext of saving the children. That names like Winona Ryder (as a social worker), Jeremy Sisto (as the meth-head), and Marilyn Manson (as a scuzzy boyfriend) have been gulled into appearing in the film makes the bait-and-switch no less despicable.

LeRoy's admirers say that if the art is compelling enough, that's all that matters. Stories like this are genuine, so who cares if this one's not? The only honest answer to that is unprintable. Every tale of childhood abuse revealed as fake detracts from those that are real; every invented shock is an insult to the ones that happened. ''The Heart Is Deceitful" wants to cauterize us into feeling something -- anything -- but it's far too heartless to know what.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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