- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2001

"Hearts in Atlantis" is a Jekyll-and-Hyde proposition. Largely evocative and attractive in the early stages while recalling the poor but gallant boyhood of a fatherless Connecticut lad named Bobby Garfield, circa 1960, the movie surrenders to sordid and nightmarish tendencies in the climactic and concluding episodes. William Goldman's screenplay derives from stories by Stephen King, whose intentions remain an abiding source of mystery as the plot unravels and decays.

A teen-age bully called Harry (Timmy Reifsnyder) is recruited to harass and terrorize 11-year-old Bobby (embodied with admirable sincerity and concentration by Anton Yelchin) and his best friends, Mika Boorem as Carol and Will Rothhaar as Sully. Initially, Harry appears to have been promptly disarmed by Bobby's mysterious neighbor and protector, a middle-aged and near-blind seer called Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins). Ted is an upstairs boarder at the house rented by Bobby's widowed and blundering mother, Liz (Hope Davis).

Unfortunately, Ted's psychic powers don't dissuade Mr. Goldman and director Scott Hicks from bringing back Harry for an encore that injures Carol. Meanwhile, Ted is haunted by shadowy figures whose purposes remain hazy, although the heaviest hints point at government agents who plan to exploit a superior mind for nefarious purposes. Despite all the dreadful shenanigans that emerge, the filmmakers somehow talk themselves into departing on a wistful note of consolation between Bobby and his mother, whose estrangement looks painfully severe as a rule.

For example, we first encounter Liz in flashback pleading poverty on her son's birthday; he wants a bike but she presents him with a library card. Given, a bike might be beyond her slender means, but a library card? Abused by her lecherous boss, Liz impulsively accuses Ted, always a suspicious presence in her estimation, of molesting the injured Carol. Indeed, Liz gets just about everything wrong that a vainly aggrieved and inattentive parent could get wrong. As a calamity, she threatens to rival Piper Laurie as Sissy Spacek's mother in "Carrie," the first fable by Mr. King to reach the screen.

Nevertheless, having reversed expectations in midstream, "Hearts" pulls another switch while waving bye-bye. It's as though the traumas of the second act were understood to be expedient scare tactics without lasting implications for the characters involved. Bobby seems to have forgotten the whole thing. We're introduced to him as a middle-aged photographer and family man who is stirred to revisit the past upon being informed that Sully has died. While attending the funeral, Bobby learns that Carol also is gone.

Once the flashbacks begin, Sully fails to play a significant role. Carol rates some fond attention as Bobby's childhood sweetheart, but much of it is formulated in grotesque terms. For example, Ted presumes to give Bobby advice on first kisses. He even shares a dubious hypothesis: that a first kiss with Carol will be the standard for all subsequent kisses. Really? At age 11? The grown-up Bobby certainly lost track of Carol.

While the plot remains sweet-tempered, humbug about first kisses and such can be tolerated. Once the ugly stuff takes over, all bets are off. "Hearts in Atlantis" may want to wear its heart on its sleeve, but too much stupefying malice is hidden up that sleeve.

Are actors pushovers for mentoring tear-jerkers? We had Mel Gibson in "The Man Without a Face," Sean Connery in "Finding Forrester" and now Mr. Hopkins in "Hearts in Atlantis." Preventing the inspirational motive from suffering mawkish breakdowns appears quite a challenge. Mr. Goldman and Mr. Hicks don't put up much of a fight. The director's previous features, "Shine" and "Snow Falling on Cedars," suggested a compulsive and picturesque attraction to heartbreak. An astringent approach would seem out of character.

The need to accentuate underhanded storytelling devices is baffling. Transparency would seem to make far more sense. The introductory scenes between Ted and Bobby are affectionate and promising in respects that don't require grotesque twists. Ted could be haunted by things that remained commonplace and explicable. Liz and Bobby could sort out their conflicts without reducing the mother to a shrew.

The "Cinema Paradiso" plot structure might have become the basis for a childhood memoir that proved emotionally rewarding rather than disillusioning. Maybe it'll help if spectators bring generous nostalgic associations of their own to the movie. Mr. Goldman has done so in one overcalculated but effective monologue for Mr. Hopkins that finds Ted recalling the last great game of Bronko Nagurski with the Chicago Bears. "Hearts in Atlantis" cries out for a veritable bodyguard of Nagurski anecdotes.

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