Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Mika Boorem, David Morse.
Directed by Scott Hicks.
Written by William Goldman.
Based on the book by Stephen King.
Distributed by Warner Bros.
101 minutes.

Photo ©Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

Summer of Change, with a Psychic

This is a killer line-up. The director is Scott Hicks, who previously garnered acclaim for directing Shine. The story comes from a Stephen King book. The screenwriter is William Goldman, who in 1990 successfully adapted King's Misery. And the top-billed actor is Sir Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his box-office triumph as the popular title character in Hannibal. It is therefore disappointing that the movie resulting from the work of these combined talents feels underwhelming.

Perhaps Hearts in Atlantis should not be faulted for eliciting such a reaction, for the movie's intention is actually quite modest: to tell the coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old boy named Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin). The adult Bobby (David Morse) is prompted by the recent death of a friend to recall the summer of 1960. This summer of a transition away from childhood begins when Bobby's widowed mother (Hope Davis) accepts a boarder named Ted Brautigan (Hopkins). Brautigan, as Bobby will soon learn, brings with him a mysterious past and the abilities of a psychic, but it will be his kindness and attention that will profoundly change Bobby's life.

When you momentarily disregard its pedigree, the movie is charming. It offers scenic cinematography (by the late Piotr Sobocinski) awash in nostalgia. Accompanied by '50's music, the images of an old-fashioned fairground and the houses of lower middle-class suburbia bring to the audience thoughts of a time when kids played outdoors and laundry was hung on the clothesline. The story elements include longing for a bike, falling for the girl-next-door, and avoiding the neighborhood bully. Since the atmosphere is mostly dreamy, the audience could easily be lulled into accepting this warm portrait of a childhood in the past as passable movie fare.

However, this is Hicks, King, Goldman, and Hopkins here. The audience can grow restless if it expects more, and it can hardly be blamed for expecting more in this case. The narrative and characters are not extraordinary and Hicks develops them with a by-the-numbers pace. The King element comes in the form of Brautigan's psychic powers, but the mystery provided by these abilities is insignificant, providing little intrigue and almost no influence on Bobby's child-to-adult revelations. Hopkins’s performance as a wise and gentle old man, a kind of everyone's-favorite-grandfather, is welcome and his presence is strong, but the role is no stretch for him. And Goldman's touches can be taken as either heartwarming or maudlin, as in a scene where a football player's heroic performance is recalled, or when young Bobby precociously repeats the lines that Brautigan had said sometime before.

Hearts in Atlantis is a small story, but that shouldn't be an excuse for its lack of ambition. It could have been something special; instead it is run-of-the-mill. It's puzzling because the movie's advertising plays on the viewer's natural curiosity of the supernatural (note the TV spots featuring the carnival card-guessing game), but the movie itself puts the supernatural in the background of a boy-grows-up tale. It's a story that might have easily fit in as an episode of "The Wonder Years," if the show just happened to feature a resident psychic. You can hear the adult voice of Kevin Arnold saying, "That summer, when I met Ted, was the summer that would change my life forever."

Rating: 6/10

©Jeffrey Chen, Sep. 22, 2001