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With: Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, David Morse, Mika Boorem Will Rothhaar
Written by: William Goldman, based on a novel by Stephen King
Directed by: Scott Hicks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Running Time: 101
Date: 09/07/2001

Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Brave 'Hearts'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For some reason, that old stigma -- that movies based on Stephen King novels stink -- still stands today despite such marvelous films as De Palma's Carrie, Kubrick's The Shining, Cronenberg's The Dead Zone, Rob Reiner's Stand By Me and Misery, and Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption. I think it's because the stigma for horror films in general still stands, and most people feel the need to put them down in favor of real "art."

The newest film based on a King book is Hearts in Atlantis. Like Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, it's not concerned with supernatural horrors but more the everyday horrors of growing up, growing old and dying. It's directed by Scott Hicks, the slick prestige director behind such lovely and empty films as Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars. But this time the material is there, and Hicks' knack for gazing thoughtfully at actors' faces and getting the feel of the seasons works.

Anthony Hopkins stars as the main object of Hicks' gaze, a mysterious old fellow named Ted who moves into the empty upstairs unit belonging to Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and his mother (Hope Davis). Bobby is a typical kid who has fun with his best friends (Mika Boorem and Will Rothhaar) in the summer of 1960 (the movie loads up the soundtrack with a typical selection of pop tunes to define the era). But at home with his divorced mother, it's a different story. Constantly short of money except when she needs a new dress for work, Bobby suffers the consequences, getting a library card for his 11th birthday instead of the bike he's been longing for.

That's where Ted comes in. By offering Bobby a job reading to him, Ted gives him the chance to earn some money and to exercise his youthful imagination. As part of the job, Ted asks Bobby to keep a watch out for "men in yellow coats" who drive sports cars and post flyers on telephone poles. These men will eventually come to take Ted away, we're told. Ted also has weird attacks, where he withdraws and stares into space for long moments. Ted seems odd and dangerous, but he fascinates the young Bobby.

As adapted by master scribe William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Misery), the film works for a long time by playing with Ted's impending mystery. And Hopkins helps things immensely with his usual gleefully sinister performance. Goldman also devises a lovely wraparound sequence showing the adult Bobby (played by the wonderful David Morse) revisiting his home town and his childhood.

Likewise, the film deals with several unconnected yet resonant "coming of age" scenes -- such as dealing with a vicious, repressed bully -- that remind us of the superior Stand By Me.

But as the film winds down Goldman blatantly releases the mystery, and everything becomes too literal and loses momentum. What we initially imagined is a far cry from what we actually get. (The Green Mile suffered from the same problem, unable to sustain the magic from the first hour all the way to its third.)

Fortunately, before the credits roll, we go back to Morse again and the film ends on a high note. And though the mystery -- the film's real draw -- turns out to be less than it seemed at first, the theme of childhood loss still hits home with a beautiful ache.
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