Hearts in Atlantis


USA, 2001. Rated R. 110 minutes.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Mika Boorem, David Morse, Will Rothhaar, Dierdre O'Connell
Writers: William Goldman, based on the short stories "Low Men in Yellow Coats" and "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling" (from the book Hearts in Atlantis), by Stephen King
Music: Mychael Danna
Cinematographer: Piotr Sobocinski
Producer: Kerry Heysen
Director: Scott Hicks


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

There is a place for movies like Hearts in Atlantis. Big, syrupy, feel-good coming-of-age stories with a heavy dose of nostalgia for The Way Things Never Were. Particularly now, in the aftermath of the horrifying and heinous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a safe movie like Hearts in Atlantis should strike a responsive chord. The emotional arc is all-too-predictable, but perhaps a well made production that evokes expected feelings at conventional points in the story is a good thing right now--emotional predictability as an antidote to the emotional unpredictability of the past few weeks.

Like Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis is based on two short stories by Stephen King. The screenplay is written by William Goldman, who has worked with material by Stephen King before (Misery) and will again (Dreamcatcher, slated for 2002). Director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars) goes for the same gentle grace as the two Darabont films, with inferior results--this film seems directed by Darabont Lite.

Hearts in Atlantis opens with a similar nostalgic flashback device as The Green Mile. We meet Bobby Garfield (David Morse) as a fifty-year old adult when he gets word of the death of a childhood friend. Hicks then takes us back to 1960, when Bobby, now played by Anton Yelchin, was eleven years old. He and his two best friends, Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar), are innocent and carefree in the way that movie kids are innocent and carefree, which involves a lot of playing in water and walking on railroad tracks, accompanied by Mychael Danna's cloying score. Bobby's mother, the self-pitying Liz (Hope Davis), is not innocent and carefree, however. She is overworked by her slimy boss, has been a widow since Bobby was five, and is still paying off her late husband's debts.

Bobby's flashback begins with the arrival of Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), the new boarder living upstairs from Bobby and Liz. Lacking a father figure, Bobby is drawn to the kindly but mysterious Ted, who consistently dodges questions about his past. Ted is hiding from something. He hires Bobby to read him the newspaper every day (his eyes are failing, Ted says) and to watch out for "Low Men"--shifty individuals in snazzy cars and dark hats. As Ted and Bobby's relationship deepens, Liz's mistrust of Ted grows.Anthony Hopkins and Anton Yelchin

Ted's exact history remains unknown, but we do learn that he has some kind of extra-sensory perception. He can See Things--events in people's past or future, as well as the secrets they are hiding. He can pass this gift to someone else, even inadvertently, if he is touched at the wrong time. Naturally, Bobby does so and begins to see things himself, but this narrative thread is not pursued and left dissatisfyingly unsettled. Hicks prefers to focus on Bobby's budding romance with Carol, revelations about Bobby's allegedly no-account father, and Bobby's relationship with his mother. Meanwhile, the Low Men close in.

In truth, Hearts in Atlantis needn't have a supernatural dimension at all. That element has been de-emphasized, and is not central to Bobby's coming of age, which is what the movie is really about. Hicks and Goldman mix in the supernatural, perhaps for marketing reasons, without capitalizing on or resolving it. The supernatural distracts from the character-driven movie Hicks and Goldman want to make, while the character-driven coming-of-age story never fully takes over from the broader-scope supernatural tale Hearts in Atlantis could have been.

Hopkins is the movie's strongest asset. He is, as always, a mesmeric performer, transcending the mediocre material, as he's done all too often of late. Hopkins is the only actor in the movie underplaying his role, and for that reason he stands out all the more. Curiously, Hicks' direction follows suit--quiet and unobtrusive when Hopkins is on screen, schmaltzy and overwrought at all other times. A particularly overcooked sequence has Bobby struggling to carry a friend to safety, during which Hicks has placed on the soundtrack sounds of a crowd cheering and Ted's voice recounting the climax of a football story he had told Bobby earlier in the film.

Hicks and Goldman overreach, but they make up for it every time Bobby and Ted interact. These scenes are unassumingly tender, enhanced by Hopkins' incomparable ability to communicate the emotions of uncommunicative characters. It's easy to enjoy those scenes for their own sake and forget the rest of the movie, which is a classic example of the clichéd sentimental material Big Hollywood Studios churn out when they aim for touching drama. Clichéd material is not always a terrible thing, though, especially when it deals with themes like lost innocence at a time when we, as a country, keenly feel that loss. Hearts in Atlantis can be a reassuring trip to the theater. It is ultimately insubstantial, but it is a feel-good movie nonetheless. Maybe that hits the spot.

Review © September 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Warner Bros.

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