Review by David Mumpower
September 30, 2001
Stephen King stories get turned into movies more often than Barry Bonds homers, so it's no surprise to see another idea of his replicated for the big screen. In this case, the title in question is Hearts in Atlantis, and the motion picture combines two storylines from the book into one yarn told in flashback form by a man attending the funeral of one of his best friends growing up.
On paper, there are few combinations that could rival a William Goldman script based on a Stephen King story, so my expectations were obviously quite high going in. This is a film that I have had on radar since casting began; therefore, my anticipation was great, but in all honesty, those hopes were easily exceeded by the movie experience treat I was given. Hearts in Atlantis plays like a deeper, more emotional version of Stand by Me, mixed with the fuzzy, sentimental romance of the best episodes of The Wonder Years. As a big fan of each, that's my way of saying that this movie takes the best parts of already-successful stories and melds them into an amalgam that is uplifting and emotionally moving without being grossly manipulative or introspectively self-serving.
The film begins in the present day with adult Bobby, played by David Morse, one of the finest character actors in the world today, receiving a glove from his recently-deceased friend Sully. When he arrives for the funeral procession, Bobby is devastated to learn that Carol Gerber, the person he had hoped to see again for the first time since they were both 11 years old, has died. This causes him to head over to the now-condemned house where he was raised and reflect upon that portion of his life. The flashback is handled in smooth fashion and with a great deal of dignity. It was at this moment that I first realized Morse was going to have a similar role to the one Daniel Stern had in The Wonder Years, that of a grown man reminiscing upon the days of his youth. For someone who had such a warm upbringing as I did, stories such as this one are almost always a treat.
The child version of Bobby looks like the lost Brady Bunch son, due to his ridiculously curly hair and chubby cheeks. He's instantly likable as the sweet but guileless boy we all either were or we knew growing up. His total lack of artifice is utilized effectively throughout the story as he attempts to learn more about the usual things kids want to learn about at that age: his parents, members of the opposite sex, and basically any stranger who enters his life. That last category is filled here by Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Brautigan ("Call me Ted"), the mysterious man who arrives "from up North" and rents the apartment above Bobby and his mother. Bobby is instantly drawn to this stranger who seems to have all of the answers to life and tells a fine Bronco Nagursky story to boot. The two of them have a warm chemistry that I can best describe by saying that they seem like a grandfather and grandson who are always getting ready to go fishing together. They enjoy each other's company to such an extent that Bobby's mother, Elizabeth, begins to suspect that Mr. Brautigan might be attempting to make Bobby the subject of a very unique ABC After-School Special about molestation. Unfortunately for the two of them, she is presumptuous and closed-minded, so her unfounded fears create nothing but difficulties for Bobby and Ted.
I'm as shocked to write this as you are to read it, but the worst part of the movie is Hope Davis. Her performance as Elizabeth is uninspired and lethargic. In a story where the pre-teen boy and girl are given rich personalities and grow as characters, Hope's portrayal of Elizabeth is frustrating in its cartoonish lack of layering. What you see is what you get with her, as she spends 99 of the 101 minutes of the film desperately needing development. All we learn about the character of Elizabeth is that she married a good man who everyone but her liked and that she is selfish to the very core, to the extent that she'd rather buy herself new dresses than get her only child the bike he dreams of owning. Even though there is finally some resolution between mother and son at the end, it's the proverbial case of too little, too late to save a supremely talented thespian from a misstep in this, her first true performance as a lead actress in a mainstream (read: non-indie) role. As one of her biggest fans, that's probably more disappointing to me than it is to those of you reading this, but I walked out of the theater shaking my head at her work and wished director Scott Hicks had tried to go a different way with her character. The route chosen is too convenient and lacking in emotional depth.
To the opposite extreme, the relationship between Bobby and Carol is a joy to behold. Their innocent relationship that is budding into something neither one of them can possibly understand yet is bittersweet and painful in the way it will remind many viewers of their first loves. From the introductory sequence, where Carol gives Bobby a birthday card ("It better not be mushy.") that has a picture of his dream bicycle, to the very end of the film, where they realize what the future is about to bring, special care is taken to make their romance feel exceptional. And it does. Good Lord, does it ever. Say the words with me now:
Kevin and Winnie. Kevin and Winnie. Kevin and Winnie.
There is no other way to describe the trials the two of them face, as Mr. Brautigan's prophesied first kiss (well, two of them really) takes place in a magically romantic setting, and as together they take a stand against three older bullies, one of whom is struggling with his own feelings of self-loathing that are cleverly described in veiled words at one point. The most tender moment for me is also one of the most subtle in the film, as Carol wordlessly enters a store and charms a smitten boy into buying a different bike so that Bobby can get the one he dreams of owning. It's a poignant demonstration that she, unlike his mother, knows exactly what he wants in life, and that she will do anything in her power to help him attain that very thing. It's one of my favorite moments of cinema thus far in 2001.
The film's conflict mainly revolves around the secrets surrounding Mr. Brautigan, who seems convinced he will one day have to leave Bobby. There is no point in discussing them in detail, other than to say that Anton Yelchin, the wunderkind who portrays Bobby, manages to avoid the cloying nature of child actors by not trying to do too much. Just as Patrick Fugit succeeded in Almost Famous by being exactly what the role called for, a naïve kid in over his head, Yelchin similarly exceeds expectations here by accurately portraying a young boy desperately looking for a father figure. When he meets that man and is then faced with losing him, Bobby's pain and fear is palpable, believable and adorable. This is the best child acting performance since Rory Culkin's phenomenal work in You Can Count on Me. In fact, the finest compliment I can give his effort is that Hearts in Atlantis will possibly bring Anthony Hopkins an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor, yet I've intentionally not discussed him much here. In my opinion, the kid is that good.
Hearts in Atlantis is old-time Hollywood storytelling. It is slow and uneventful for the most part and will probably be only a moderate performer at the box office for these reasons. If, however, you are a more discriminating movie lover and want to find a simple tale created by experienced and supremely talented storytellers, Hearts in Atlantis is a can't-miss film. This one will make my top 10 for 2001.
9.5 out of 10.
This review is dedicated to the loving memory of Katrina and Murphy, both of whom had the heart of a lion.