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'Hearts in Atlantis'

Adaptation of Stephen King novella is a slight snapshot

Friday, September 28, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Anthony Hopkins. Stephen King. William Goldman.

 
 
'Hearts In Atlantis'

Rating: PG-13 for violence and other thematic elements

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis, Anton Yelchin

Director: Scott Hicks

Web site: www2.warnerbros.com/
heartsinatlantis/

Critic's call:

   
 

These names make movie studios (and, usually, audiences) sit up and take notice. They join forces for "Hearts in Atlantis," a vividly imagined adaptation of a King novella and short story. The movie carefully re-creates the summer of 1960 and allows Hopkins to turn yet another facet of his diamond-like acting ability to the light. And, as always, he sparkles brilliantly.

In the end, though, it all feels somewhat thin and incomplete. It's a snapshot of an adolescent summer, and we want to know more about the bookends of this period. Or I did.

"Hearts in Atlantis," directed by Scott Hicks ("Shine"), opens in the present day with a middle-aged photographer receiving a package that signals the death of a childhood friend. With his wife and boys off skiing, he goes to his pal's funeral and revisits the Connecticut house where he spent part of his youth.

"Why do we expect home to stay the same? Nothing else does," he muses, as he ignores the "Condemned" signs and enters the dilapidated structure.

That transports him and us back to the year Bobby (young Anton Yelchin) turns 11 and his widowed mother (Hope Davis) gives him not the Schwinn Black Phantom bike of his dreams but an adult library card. After all, she bitterly reminds Bobby, his late father was a gambler who left them with unpaid rent and bills. "It's not been easy," she says, although she seems to find money to buy new clothes for the office job she holds.

Bobby spends most of his time with his two best friends, Carol and Sully, until a tenant named Ted Brautigan (Hopkins) moves into the upstairs apartment. Claiming failing eyesight, Ted hires Bobby to read the newspaper to him.

The boarder also asks Bobby to be on the lookout for "low men, fellows who are ruthless and dangerous to know." They're thugs and bullies who want Ted back under their control; he has "something" they want. Bobby assures him, "Don't worry, Ted. I won't let the bogeymen get you."

Ted proves to be the father or uncle figure Bobby sorely needs. He endorses the pleasures of reading such books as "Lost Horizon" and "A Tale of Two Cities," he recounts a famous football game Bobby's father also attended and he predicts the import and impact of Bobby's first kiss. In fact, he seems to have a mysterious ability to understand what others are thinking or experiencing.

This innocent time, which is literally given a warm, golden glow, is interrupted by neighborhood bullies who pick on Bobby and his friends, a disturbing incident with Bobby's mother and ominous signs that the "low men" are closing in. For a while, life fits Ted's description: "Sometimes when you're young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you're living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been ... then we grow up and our hearts break in two."

Atlantis may be a giddy, watery spin in an inner tube. It may be a dizzying ride on the Scrambler or Tilt-a-Whirl. It may be a shared remembrance of a now-gone parent.

"Hearts in Atlantis" is carefully cast, starting with Hopkins, the often distant Davis as the chilly, unhappy mother, and young Yelchin as the bright-eyed, curly haired Bobby who is played as an adult by David Morse. The Russian-born Anton Yelchin came to the United States as a 6-month-old with his parents, Russian national figure skating champions, and has appeared in seven films in the past two years. As Carol, Mika Boorem (one of Mel Gibson's daughters in "The Patriot") has a Kirsten Dunst quality which makes her a vivid screen presence.

So what's the problem, then? It just doesn't feel complete.

King's 1999 book "Hearts of Atlantis" features five stories, including the generally praised "Low Men in Yellow Coats." At 250 pages, it's the longest. It forms the heart of this movie, which also dips into the fifth story called "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling." Goldman adapted the two into the screenplay.

I haven't read the book, but it spans a longer period and explores other, less idyllic parts of the '60s. The movie teases us by introducing characters we care about and never explaining what happened to them after that pivotal period.

In the end, it seems too fleeting and ephemeral.

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