Hearts in Atlantis
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Mika Boorem, David Morse

Scott Hicks

Writing credits: Stephen King (novel), William Goldman
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Rated: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
  (US 2001)

Coming-of-age movies tend to be one of the more insufferable genres in film (romantic comedy and female bonding being two others). By definition, they tend to be slowly-paced, with some tedious voice-over, set in some never-was world of sun-dappled golden autumn days, choking on nostalgia for A Simpler Time. I suppose last year's MY DOG SKIP was one of these, except that for this reviewer, a Cute Dog redeems an awful lot of sap.

Then there are coming-of-age stories reflected through the jaundiced eye of Stephen King. In King World, childhood is fraught with hidden dangers, with bogeymen lurking just under the surface of both the physical world and the mental one; metaphors for the Changes and Awakenings that accompany the work of growing up. Writing is therapy for this particular author, and it often seems when reading his work, particularly those stories written through the eyes of a child, that we are reading the notes of a therapist asking him about his childhood. This degree of truth is difficult to capture on film. Rob Reiner somehow managed to work magic with his 1986 adaptation of King's story "The Body" as STAND BY ME. Scott Hicks' latest attempt, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, based on the story "Low Men in Yellow Coats" from King's eponymous novel, only sporadically succeeds, and then it's only because of William Golding's script, which adheres closely enough to the source work to retain some of the trademark Stephen King weirdness.

Themes of loss pervade King's childhood reveries. In this case, it's a lost father circa 1960, leaving 11-year-old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) in the sole care of his hopelessly self-centered martyr of a mother (Hope Davis). Mom, a sort of Livia Soprano-in-training, lays the guilt on with a trowel, delighting in reminding Bobby again and again of all the gambling debts his dead father left, along with the burden of raising a son alone -- all this while laying in a supply of one fabulous dress after another. Bobby seeks solace as part of a little troika of best friends, the others being Sully-John (Will Rothaar, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to the young River Phoenix as he looked in STAND BY ME) and Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem, in the role played by Caitlin Wachs in MY DOG SKIP).

A mysterious lodger, Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) comes to rent the upstairs room, becoming a surrogate father figure and mentor, opening the door to Classics of Cool Literature, such as Great Expectations, which ends with a beheading, and their authors, such as Ben Jonson, who was "prone to flatulence" (a requirement of Cool when you're eleven). Ted has some vague psychic powers, and claims to be pursued by "low men" (who in King's original work may or may not have been some sort of otherworldly being, but in this more reality-centered interpretation, are probably merely denizens of J. Edgar Hoover's paranoid 1960 version of the F.B.I.). Ted is a sort of Puberty Fairy, who with a wave of his magic wand, makes boys suddenly see the flaxen-haired girl next door (there's always a flaxen-haired girl next door) as female for the first time, see their mothers as not omnipotent after all, and starts lost youths on the Road to Manhood.

The role of Ted Brautigan is a flagrant Oscar grab for Sir Anthony Hopkins, who seems to be making a late-life career of always playing either Hannibal Lecter or Stevens the Butler from THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. Since Bobby and his adorably Rockwellian compadres don't end up as an entree served with fava beans and a nice chianti (though this being a King adaptation, that might have been a nice touch), it's pretty easy to guess that this is a somewhat creepier doppelganger of the somnombulent billionaire Hopkins portrayed in the interminable MEET JOE BLACK. Hopkins gets a lot of Wise Old Guy things to say in between sips of Hires Root Beer (a King product placement stalwart), like "Sometimes when you're young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you're living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been" and "When your mother writes 'BAD' under a picture of someone, she writes it in ink" and "That first kiss will be the kiss by which all others in your life will be judged and found wanting." What a bummer to lay on an eleven-year-old, eh? This kind of "helpful" remark is the kissin' cousin (*sorry*) to the guy at his bachelor party (probably the closeted homosexual homophobic bullyboy of this flick) who'll say, "Hey, Bobby-O, how does it feel to know that after tomorrow you'll never be able to fuck anyone else FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?" Yet despite some of the awful lines he's given to say (and trust me, King didn't write most of them), Hopkins manages to make Brautigan seem like the odd, yet sympathetic character he's meant to be. In one of the more fortunate passages given to him, Hopkins shows why he's one of the most respected actors in the business, as he recounts a football game in which the legendary Bronko Nagursky returns from retirement to play one more time. Even if you're not a fan of football, you'll be as sucked into this tale as young Bobby is.

Coming-of-age films have one immovable requirement, and that is child actors of the highest caliber. In this respect, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS falls short. Yelchin is cute as a button in a tousled-haired bar mitzvah boy kind of way, but has a way of mugging for the camera that's too reminiscent of the Marauding Culkins. Mika Boorem fares somewhat better, and is certainly pretty enough (some shots of her, while meant to be seen through the eyes of a boy who is now a man, seem uncomfortably close to kiddie porn), but when the two of them are together, it's clear that we are watching "AC-ting." STAND BY ME, with its incomparably natural performances by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix,and yes, even Corey Feldman, is the 800-pound gorilla that looms over this film like the dead big brother/hero in Reiner's film. HEARTS IN ATLANTIS stands in that film's shadow, as if knowing it just doesn't quite measure up.

The main storyline is encapsulated by a framing story, which features an all-too-short appearance by the wonderfully marvelous David Morse as the grown-up Bobby; a fleeting glimpse of the far more compelling story in King's book, the one which bears this film's name, in which we find out what happened to Bobby and Carol.

If HEARTS IN ATLANTIS has one strength, it is that it is gorgeous in that sun-dappled nostalgic way. Scott Hicks proved in SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS that he knows how to direct a pretty, if not a good, film; and master cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski expertly shades his scenes to reflect moods -- the steeped-in-sadness house in which Bobby and his mother lives are institutional greens and drab grays; the stream near which Bobby and his friends play glints like diamonds in crisp autumn sunshine, and a lovely sepia-tinted scene in which the three friends go tubing at the seashore looks like Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" video.

In a year that has produces one ghastly piece of crap after another, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS looks like CITIZEN KANE by comparsion. But in the dichotomy between my own "left me cold" reaction and the delight the others in the audience at the screening I attended seemed to feel at this film, I was left thinking this was less a worthy King adaptation on a par with STAND BY ME or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and more a cheap, manipulative weepie along the lines of PAY IT FORWARD.

King's marvelous collection of stories deserved better.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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