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Hearts in Atlantis

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Hearts in Atlantis

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis
Director: Scott Hicks
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 101 Minutes
Release Date: September 2001
Genres: Drama, Suspense, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: David Morse, Mika Boorem, Anton Yelchin, Dierdre O'Connell

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

Look at the credits for "Hearts in Atlantis." A nostalgic drama starring Anthony Hopkins, with a screenplay by William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") based on a novel by Stephen King and directed by Scott Hicks, the man who brought us "Shine." How can you go wrong with a roster like that?

Somehow, they found a way.

I should make it clear up front that there are elements of "Hearts in Atlantis" that work very well. The locations are skillfully chosen - this is a movie with a wonderfully specific sense of place. The cinematography by the late Piotr Sobocinski is simply gorgeous. Anthony Hopkins gives a sad, wistful, understated performance and establishes a fine rapport with young actor Anton Yelchin. There are several memorable scenes, particularly a Three-Card Monty segment and a first kiss on a Ferris Wheel.

But the film doesn't work. After leaving the press screening with only a vague notion that something about the production was wrong, I made a point to see the movie again at a sneak preview over the weekend, hoping to pin down the exact source of my discontent. Basically, it boils down to this: "Hearts in Atlantis" purports to show the incalculable impact a mentor can have on a child, but offers a contradictory message through its depiction of the adult version of that child.

As in the far superior "Stand By Me," the film opens with a man dealing with the death of a childhood friend. Photographer Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to a small Connecticut town for the funeral of his best pal, Sully, only to learn that Carol, his first love, has also passed away.

A side note: In the book on which the film is based, Carol did not die. Reportedly, director Hicks was jarred by the final scene in "Billy Elliot," which abruptly switched to an adult version of the young star of the movie. Rather than risk upsetting viewers by presenting an adult version of Carol, Hicks opted to kill her instead. Thanks, Scott.

In "Stand By Me," the adult revisits his childhood through his writing, and in the closing scenes, shows that he grew from the experiences. In "Hearts in Atlantis," the adult Bobby remembers his childhood while standing in the ruins of his old home, looking morose (and nobody is better at looking morose than David Morse). When the flashback ends and the camera returns to him, Bobby simply continues looking morose. If he gained anything from his mentor, or Carol, or anybody, there is no evidence of it onscreen. Where "Stand By Me" overflows with life and growth, "Hearts in Atlantis" traffics in death and stagnancy.

Back in 1962 (cue the overplayed oldies), 11-year-old Bobby (Yelchin) lives with his widowed mother Elizabeth (Hope Davis, giving a needlessly shrill performance). The boy often slips away to play with his closest friends, Sully (Will Rothhaar) and Carol (Mika Boorem), while dodging a local bully. Almost every day, Bobby gazes through the toy store window at the bicycle of his dreams. Unfortunately, Mom can't afford to buy him the bike, although she somehow manages to keep a fresh supply of new dresses.

Life becomes more interesting when Mom takes in a boarder, an elderly gent named Ted Brautigan (Hopkins). Elizabeth views Ted with suspicion, but welcomes his money, while Bobby finds the old man fascinating. It seems that Ted is possessed of a gift and must hide from the "low men" that would spirit him away because of his gift. He hires Bobby - for a dollar a week! - to read to him and keep an eye out for his pursuers.

Ted becomes a mentor to Bobby: a reassuring presence and occasional protector to the boy and his friends. It is here where "Hearts in Atlantis" lives up to its promise. Although a few scenes fall flat, particularly a face-off between Ted and the bully, the film captures the elusive magic that nostalgic pieces shoot for, with just the right balance of bitter and sweet. Hopkins interacts warmly with the kids, and young Anton Yelchin and Mika Boorem are delightful together. All too soon, though, the story gives way to melodrama without resonance, leading to the return of David Morse for the dour wrap-up.

Because of the acting, cinematography and charming middle section, I'm glad I saw "Hearts in Atlantis." Still, it is amazing that a group of talents like this was only able to come up with one third of a great movie.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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