**/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Mika Boorem
screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King
directed by Scott Hicks
by Walter Chaw That there is a wistful framing device in Hearts in Atlantis announces from the beginning exactly the kind of Stephen King movie this is going to be. Directed by Scott Hicks, more of a visual stylist than a storyteller, Hearts in Atlantis is a hollow addition to the cottage sub-genre of non-horror adult contemporary King adaptations that includes The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and, most glaringly, Stand By Me. Scripted by two-time Oscar-winner William Goldman (who also adapted King's Misery and the forthcoming screen version of his Dreamcatcher), Hearts in Atlantis is a clunky bit of period treacle. It covers the requisite bases of magic-realism and bully intrigue without even satisfactorily following through on a major plotline concerning a really boss bicycle. Based on the novellas "Low Men in Yellow Coats" and "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling" from 1999's Hearts in Atlantis, the film of the same name is inferior to its sources in its aversion to addressing the darker elements of childhood.
Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins, doing a benign take on Hannibal Lecter) is a mysterious old geezer in the apartment upstairs from adorable moppet Bobby (newcomer Anton Yelchin) and his narcissistic mother Liz (Hope Davis). Ted hires Bobby to read him the newspaper and keep his eyes peeled for signs of "the low men"--furtive thugs who communicate through missing pets signs on telephone posts. The last summer of Bobby's innocence (of course), he and his two friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully John (Will Rothhaar) triumph over tormenters, gawk at bikes in the department store window, steal pecks on the Ferris Wheel at the Bradbury-an carnival, and run through the luxuriant New Jersey woods to the tunes of The Crew Cuts and Chubby Checker.
But what's up with Ted? He talks in an affected air of educated civility, champions library cards, lapses into extended catatonic fits in which he says things like "you sense them first in the backs of your eyes," seems to be able to predict the future, and keeps his past a secret with dedication. If King's work in general and the novellas in question are familiar to you, you're probably hoping that Hearts in Atlantis is the first sly screen adaptation of the author's "Dark Tower" horror-fantasies. Sadly, the film downplays the "low men" of the source material, relegating them to the far more mundane status of government tough guys looking for an escaped psychic guinea pig à la Firestarter. The focus of the film is clearly to shy away from King's supernatural suggestions and focus instead on the relationship triangle involving Bobby, Liz, and Ted. Unfortunately, in shifting away from those critically sinister elements, Hearts in Atlantis also abandons any hope of suspense and edginess while giving little attention to Sully John (whose death provides a Big Chill-like catalyst for the film), and glossing over much of the simultaneous fear and wonder of childhood for which the film intends to mourn.
Hopkins and Davis are fine, although neither seem inclined to transcend the lack of nuance in the writing and direction, and young Boorem impresses with her transparent kindness as she struggles to make lines like "thank you, kind sir" sound unaffected and natural. The problem comes in the casting of Anton Yelchin: With the curly locks and wide-eyed wonder of young Elijah Wood, he betrays none of that former child star's sober intelligence. Yelchin is a poor choice to carry this film, blown off the screen time and again in his interactions with the sympathetic-looking Hopkins (the worst coming in a scene involving the purported ickiness of kissing) and the frigid Davis. Perhaps not surprising considering the pedigree of his adult co-stars; what's really a shame is that even same-aged Boorem outmatches the guileless Yelchin.
What the populist heartstring-tugger Hearts of Atlantis really lacks is punch. Ted Brautigan becomes a crinkly-eyed Shane figure, and determined single-mom Liz is eventually reduced to a preening victim of sexual violence who responds by lashing out hysterically at her son and his surrogate father-figure. Wishy-washy and grating in its earnestness, Hearts in Atlantis pushes all of its stickiness to the background long before a conclusion that goes from merely manipulative to shameless. It is a lumbering collection of unearned pathos and awkward dialogue, shot in a golden Maxfield Parrish glow that inspires more sighs of resignation than nostalgia. Hearts in Atlantis is as much of a sleepwalk as the Santo & Johnny guitar moaning on its calculated all-oldies soundtrack. Read the book. Originally published: September 28, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Warner's Hearts in Atlantis DVD presents the film in a lush, high-contrast (save, for the most part, the bluish bookend scenes) 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 mix can be very enveloping, though LFE information is scarce outside a couple of shots from inside a moving train. Extras include an absorbing 30-minute interview with Anthony Hopkins (dressed like The Fonz) conducted by director Scott Hicks that strays from the topic of Hearts in Atlantis after the first few minutes to cover Hopkins's humble beginnings and his decidedly anti-Stanislavskian approach to the craft of acting. A soft-spoken feature-length commentary track from the Australian Hicks suggests that he's a nice guy who wouldn't know a cliché if it did cartwheels for him, while a less-than-interactive stills gallery, cast and crew bios, and Hearts in Atlantis' smashing theatrical trailer round out the disc. Originally published: March 18, 2002.