“Hearts in Atlantis” is a poignant little end-of-childhood memoir rendered suffocatingly precious in this far too fussy and heavy-handed Hollywood bigscreen treatment. The few who saw the embalmed adaptation of “Snow Falling on Cedars” will recognize the same stifling approach brought to this more accessible material by director Scott Hicks, who seems to have left the zest he brought to “Shine” back in his native Australia. Decorous and immaculately crafted to diminishing returns, this Warner Bros. release from Castle Rock has automatic B.O. draws in the names of Anthony Hopkins and Stephen King, but pic’s uneventful nature and lack of suspense will keep it well down in the ranks of King book-to-film transfers.
Offering vague echoes of the previous King-derived films “Stand By Me” and “Apt Pupil,” “Atlantis” draws upon two stories in the author’s 1999 collection, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling.” Vet screenwriter William Goldman, who scored with his King adaptation “Misery” a decade back, more than knows what he’s doing, but his carefully constructed elaboration of a very small tale has been locked, sealed, lacquered and polished into emotional and dramatic airlessness in its move from page to screen.
Framed by a visit to his boyhood town by 50-ish Bobby Garfield (David Morse), flashback body of the film is set during the summer of 1960, much of which the 11-year-old Bobby spent with a mysterious older man, Ted Brautigan (Hopkins), who took a room in the Connecticut home Bobby shares with his mother Liz (Hope Davis).
Set-up’s basic dynamics are simple yet appealing, especially for boomer audiences who came of age around the same time and will happily drink in memories of the Nixon and JFK-nominating conventions and the dozen-plus pop tunes with which the picture is awash. With Mom putting in long hours with her boss and his father having died when he was 6, young Bobby (Anton Yelchin) readily accepts Ted’s offer of pay to read to the old man, who says his eyesight is fading.
The benefits to Bobby far exceed the pocket change, however. Ted enlivens the bright but cloistered boy’s existence with references to great books, his knowledge of life, his filling of the fatherless void and the mystery that comes with learning that Ted has a murky past that has led him to be pursued by “low men” intent upon taking him away.
When Liz goes out of town, Ted takes his charge to the mean streets of Bridgeport, where, in a local honky-tonk, Bobby learns that, yes, his dad may have been the irresponsible gambler his mother has always claimed. But contrary to her embittered statements, he was also well-liked, and maybe not so much unlike Ted, whose unsavory side clearly exists but is never elucidated in the least; the “low men” seen searching for him in slow motion throughout the picture could be anything from CIA to Mafia, and whatever transgressions he may have committed remain quite irrelevant to the qualities he exemplifies to Bobby.
Adding puppy-dog romance to the proceedings are Bobby’s first stirrings of attraction to neighborhood girl Carol (Mika Boorem), from whom he and buddy Sully (Will Rothhaar) are all but inseparable as they knock around town and the woods and are tormented by a gang of bullies.
But more intriguing from an adult perspective is the sorry trajectory of Liz. Scarcely able to conceal the resentment and bitterness she feels at being stuck as a single mother, she is a failed good-time girl, a woman whose remote fantasies of high times are choked off by a son, an empty pocketbook, small-town constraints and poor judgment — and few choices — when it comes to men. Observantly performed by Davis as far as she’s able, Liz would have made a great character for a melodrama made 40 years ago, but is relegated mostly to the sidelines here and, ironically, is viewed with less sympathy than she would have been 40 years ago.
The emotions and character arcs are slight but not uninteresting; it’s the treatment of them that makes one want to goose the picture in the rear to give it some movement and life. Hicks smothers everything with a fastidious craftsmanship that seems determined not to allow a moment or a gesture of spontaneity creep in. Much like “Cedars,” result is hermetic and sluggish, although not quite to that extreme.
Hopkins turns on just as much star wattage as he needs to make his vaguely conceived character magnetic, and he does a lovely job with some his quietly delivered monologues, particularly a long one in which he describes a memorable football performance he witnessed years before. Restrained and appealing, Yelchin holds up the kid’s side of things quite well, while Boorem, noted as Mel Gibson’s daughter in “The Patriot,” registers well as Bobby’s first sweetheart.
Production values are rich beyond pic’s needs, with Barbara C. Ling’s production design and Julie Weiss’ costumes combining with Virginia locations (subbing for New England settings) to provide a densely detailed picture of some low-key lives. Similarly lush is the lensing of Piotr Sobocinski, who died at 43 shortly after completing work on the film.