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Hearts in Atlantis
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Stephen King (writer) and William Goldman (writer) and Scott Hicks (director)
Genre:   Drama
Released:   September 28, 2001
Review Date:  
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

In light of the fact that it has a story by Stephen King, a screenplay by William Goldman (The Stepford Wives, The Princess Bride, Memoirs of an Invisible Man), and acting by Anthony Hopkins, Hearts in Atlantis is relatively unremarkable. Still, it makes for a slightly better than average two hours in the theater.

It's the 1960s. Bobby Garfield lives with his mother near Bridgeport. (Given King's standard operating procedure, I'll assume Bridgeport, Maine, though there are Bridgeports in probably half of the states of the union.) His friends are Carol and Sully. A mysterious stranger, Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) comes into town, rents the rooms upstairs, and vaguely magical things start happening. But the mystical powers in Hearts in Atlantis take a backseat to a nostalgia-tinged coming-of-age story and the mentor-pupil relationship between Bobby and Ted.

I've not read all of King's books. I'm not even sure that I could claim to have read half of them. But I've read enough to put him on my list of all-time great authors. I'd be the first to argue that King has a place in English lit classes. He's not been trying to write The Great American Novel, and his "potboiler" subject matter pretty much puts him out of the running. But you can find, in his books, along with the killer clowns and ancient forces of malevolence, some of the truest portraits of American life ever put to paper. His mirrored funhouse stories would not have the power that they do, were it not for the fact that his characters, and their relationships, are so real, so convincing.

It's surprising, then, that a movie which pushes the supernatural aside to focus on the characters turns out to be a bit mediocre. Hearts in Atlantis seems custom-made to ride the wave of commercial and critical success that has greeted King's recent non-horror outings: The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It's set in a bygone era. It's about friendship and the human spirit. It's got an Oscar-winning actor. But it feels awful slight next to its older cousins.

Stephen King has always mined his past in his stories. The magic of childhood friendship is at the center of It and Stand by Me. But where the bond of friendship in those works is built on specificity (nicknames, banter, a slingshot in your back pocket, and frank discussions about Annette Funicello's growing bust-line), the friendships of Hearts in Atlantis seem like vague romanticisms.

There are parts of Hearts in Atlantis that are classic King: Bobby's obsession with a shiny Schwinn bike, a monopoly game on the porch, parts of the carnival scene. There's even a passing reference to the Library Police. But Bobby's childhood is too often characterized by a Hallmark card generic-ness, like the scene where Bobby, Carol and Sully laugh and splash in the water on an inner-tube, bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun.

Hearts in Atlantis has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the first King film to be rated PG-13 instead of R. King's been a part of some very effective TV projects (It, The Stand, Golden Years), so I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of a non-R-rated King movie. Hearts in Atlantis is pleasant, but toothless, like sitting on the porch-swing with your grandpa in the early afternoon, drinking iced tea and watching the hummingbirds gather around the feeder… but I digress.

Hearts in Atlantis probably could have gotten an even friendlier PG, (SPOILERS. SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH) if it weren't for one thing: Bobby's mom gets sexually assaulted. The way it's handled, it's almost a throwaway scene. You'd think it'd be impossible for a rape to be a throwaway scene, but there it is: a convenient dramatic device, a partial explanation for her betrayal of Ted and her just-in-time-for-the-optimistic-ending semi-transformation from self-centered absentee mom into sympathetic character. An event that should alter the tone the film, but instead is a brief and jarring pit stop in the Town of Real-Life Evil. And that pit stop is ultimately unnecessary. When you try to imagine Bobby's mom's character arc without that scene, you realize that the rape doesn't add enough to justify its inclusion. I've not read Hearts in Atlantis, but I'll assume that the book's treatment of the rape was better integrated and more emotionally honest.

Anthony Hopkins' performance as Ted, and his interaction with Bobby (Anton Yelchin), helps keep Hearts in Atlantis from being a disappointment. For a while, I was half-expecting Ted to break out some fava beans and a nice Chianti, but he doesn't say "goody goody", not even once. The scenes with Hopkins have the easy rhythm of playing cards on bicycle spokes.

Bobby and Carol are cute and mostly harmless. Sully, meanwhile, gets almost no screen time. He's just another touchstone element in Bobby's "Norman Rockwell in the Slum's of Maine" childhood.

By the end of movies and mini-series like The Shawshank Redemption, The Stand, It, and Stand by Me, you felt like you knew the characters. After just a few hours, they were old friends. But at the end of Hearts in Atlantis, the characters you've met are only acquaintances.

Still, when Ted stares into the eyes of the neighborhood bully and crushes his bravado with a few well-placed words, you too will believe in the power of Ted.

-RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers isn't afraid of anything… except the Library Police.

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