Hearts in Atlantis

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 09/27/01 09:59:35

"Three Subplots In Search Of A Movie"
3 stars (Average)

The stories of Stephen King have always shifted from our worst fears to our base innocence and the forthcoming loss of it. Alas, children have always played an integral part in his tales, whether they are supernatural or nostalgic. Movie and King fans alike also know his novella, The Body, under the name of Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s screen adaptation, Stand By Me. In fact, some of the more beloved and acclaimed King adaptations come from the collections of short stories he’s amassed in books like Night Shift and most notably Different Seasons, where alongside The Body you will find the inspirations for Apt Pupil and The Shawshank Redemption. The latest screen presence of King’s comes in the form of Hearts In Atlantis, which would seem like a conversion of his 1999 novel, consisting of a series of interconnecting novellas and short stories. But where those contained tales were linked with common threads, the film version plays like a series of three underdeveloped subplots in search of a movie.

The title stems from the second story in the book, a story that is completely absent here. Instead, the filmmakers have concentrated on the opening yarn entitled “Low Men In Yellow Coats”. Set in the early sixties, eleven-year old birthday boy Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) so longs for that boss Schwinn bicycle which graces the window turntable of the town store. His mother, Elizabeth (Hope Davis) presents him with an adult library card in its place. A gift that keeps on giving some parents might (and should) say, but is nothing more than a representation of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent stinginess as she blames their financial troubles on Bobby’s late father.

Into their lives, and specifically their upstairs, comes Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins). Ted brings with him no immediate agenda or any noticeable plan for the future. He befriends Bobby, sharing with him the value of that library card and offering him an allowance for reading the newspaper to him each day, drawing the “special places” suspicions of mom. Ted also asks Bobby to keep him appraised of lost pet notices and other signs hinting to the arrival of the mysterious “low men” who might have a vested interest in the psychic powers that Ted possesses.

This trip down memory lane is bookended by the older Bobby (David Morse), now “Robert” the professional photographer, who is called back home to attend the funeral of childhood friend Sully. These pro-and-epilogues focus on the friendship aspect of the story between Bobby, Sully (Will Rothhaar, bearing resemblance to River Phoenix in Stand By Me) and Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem). These three were inseparable during that summer, notably Bobby and Carol, who get to share a couple of wonderfully staged first kisses, inexplicably overlooked with no care by Sully, who conveniently makes too quick an exit to warrant much of any sympathy associated with his flashback-setting demise.

Therein lies much of the problem with the filmmakers’ decision to only tackle the beginning and the ending of King’s novel. Sure, this is where Bobby takes center stage, but Sully and Carol live on in the middle acts of a story that spans four decades and whose overriding theme is the Vietnam War, which in the film has yet to begin. No matter what kind of Lost Empire speech is concocted, the “Hearts” of the original title refers not to childhood, or the honor and glory associated with courage in the face of evil, but to a card game.

With three separate stories within one story, that was part of a larger canvas, fighting for dominance with no clear theme, we are left too many dangling threads to ponder what we have just experienced. Every resolution (the ones that exist) are too anti-climactic for our thorough satisfaction. What does eventually happen to Carol and what is the true nature of Ted’s power? He has visions of the future and the ability to look within man’s souls (ala The Dead Zone & The Green Mile) but what are its full implications? Passing along his gift to Bobby through an inadvertent touch so he can win at Three-Card Monte and never use it again? The only real gifts this movie possesses are the gorgeous Oscar-caliber cinematography of the late Piotr Sobocinski, who bakes the images with the perfect nostalgic colors, and of course, the presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins.

No matter what role Hopkins plays, he always brings with him a sense of assured dignity and a manner of speaking that makes you hang not just on every word, but every syllable, every letter and every sigh that escapes his mouth. Listen to the story he tells about a football player, one that couldn’t be delivered better by any awe-stricken sportswriter, and you’ll wish that he was at your bedside, not just as a youngster but every evening until the end of your days to ease you goodnight.

A daunting task, without a doubt, for someone not to be acted out of the viewing audience, let alone in the same frame with Hopkins and unfortunately young Anton Yelchin isn’t nearly up to the task. Unable to even find a middle ground between the Haley Joel Osment’s and Jake Lloyd’s of the world, Yelchin tends to be way too anxious to reveal his joy or to cry his eyes out, leaving us with the unwanted distraction of a kid TRYING to act. To even the playing field, the kids are well represented by Mika Boorem, playing Carol with a more naturalistic sense than Yelchin, especially in a very powerful sequence of events late in the picture.

All the Stephen King trademarks are here: extraordinary powers, evil beings from a government network (ala “The Shop”), childhood bullies and rhyming catch phrases. It’s a shame that director Scott Hicks and screenwriter William Goldman didn’t go the full nine yards in turning his novel and incredible storytelling techniques into the epic treatment that it deserved. Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling On Cedars) may have a great eye for the visuals (and it shows), but his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. He should have taken time to revisit Frank Darabont’s King adaptations (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile); a filmmaker who took his audience twice to Morton’s for steaks and Hicks invites us out to a place called Scraps. (Goldman even dips back into his Princess Bride wellspring for a couple speeches on the joys of reading.) This is a story that could have combined the fantastical of a Forrest Gump with the grittiness of The Deer Hunter into a two and a half-hour plus encapsulation of Americana and the loss of it through the eyes of Bobby, Sully and Carol. Instead, we’re left with 100 minutes that feels every bit like a Readers Digest version of a short story.

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