And to think, we had to suffer through all those horror stories just to finally get to the good stuff! The latest adaptation of one of Stephen King's more pleasant novels, "Hearts In Atlantis" (IMDb listing) swiftly recalls the bittersweet charms of another King/loss of childhood innocence winner, "Stand By Me."
When the adult Bobby Garfield (David Morse, "The Green Mile") learns of a childhood friend's death, he returns to his dilapidated hometown to attend the funeral. Once there, the sights and smells of his boyhood come roaring back and his mind carries him to the 1960s when a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) came into town to stay.
A warm soul with a shady past, Brautigan moves into the upstairs apartment over Bobby and his neglectful mother Elizabeth (Hope Davis). Striking up an instant friendship with Bobby, Brautigan also strikes a deal: For a dollar a week the young boy must read the paper to the aging stranger, and must also be on the lookout for the "lowmen" who are after Brautigan for his supernatural psychic powers. When these powers are revealed to Bobby, his volatile feelings for Ted are tested, and he must help protect Brautigan from danger of the lowmen, and his uncaring mother.
Taking on a tone similar to the last tempered King adaptation, "The Green Mile," "Hearts In Atlantis" braids a mystical spell mixing elements of the supernatural with the very real plights of neglectful parenting, first love, and the loss of those close to us. "Hearts In Atlantis" is a tender film sharply steered by "Shine" director Scott Hicks with mild restraint and loads of attention to character detail. The film has a great big heart that beats readily, yet it also features a decidedly unsettling tone as Brautigan's powers are realized more and more as the story flows forward.
Adapted by William Goldman, "Hearts In Atlantis" has a little trouble keeping all the story inside the boundaries of the film. Hicks does his best to keep the picture's agenda tight and facing forward, but he misses some crucial story points along the way. Confusing are Brautigan's secret powers. They are introduced properly and mysteriously, yet the rules in which the film uses the powers to play by is in constant change. Also confusing are the adult bookends of the film. Main characters from Bobby's adolescence wind up dead in the opening, with Hicks not allowing any time to mourn them. In dealing with cantankerous screenwriter Goldman, and King's meaty novel, maybe Hicks had no choice but to discard many of the finer edges of the story to better serve the film's pace. Still, I would've liked a little more depth in "Hearts In Atlantis" when the storyline is this good.
And that lack of depth with those missing chapters adds up to create a rather melancholy tone to "Hearts In Atlantis." The picture ends up focusing on the growing pains of adolescence and the metamorphoses into adulthood. Hicks has explored this before in "Shine" and the profoundly shot "Snow Falling On Cedars," yet it has never resonated for him before as much as it does in "Hearts In Atlantis." With such a restricted, yet slightly tear-jerking finale, the picture ends up more disturbing in the end. The film takes the loss of childhood innocence very seriously, and with that, "Hearts In Atlantis" flashes a rare moment of integrity.
In the role of young Bobby, child actor Anton Yelchin carries the film wonderfully. In a performance that alternates between parental frustration and blissful innocence, Yelchin doesn't resort to the puppy-eyed tricks of the young, even when Mychael Danna's overbearing score pushes the young actor up against the wall to do so. Yelchin's performance is stronger than that. He matches (even outdoes) "Sir" Anthony Hopkins in the acting department without breaking a sweat.
And though Hopkins is basically on his usual auto-pilot in "Hearts In Atlantis," (his broad, operatic performance in this year's "Hannibal" will be hard to top for a long time to come) his acting can be easily overlooked when it comes to the shockingly bad performance given by character actress Hope Davis ("Arlington Road"). Clad in high heels, a bad wig, and forced to recite trite 1950s housewife mantras, Davis doesn't look particularly interested by the role. Her lack of enthusiasm is unquestionably apparent, and she spoils the mood richly created by Hicks, Goldman, Yelchin and Hopkins.
"Hearts In Atlantis" continues the amiable Stephen King story revival that was left off at "The Green Mile." For a man known around the globe as someone capable of scaring the hell out of everybody, his best screen adaptations recently have all come from novels where he just wants to give the world a hug.
Filmfodder Grade: B+