Hearts in Atlantis
2001, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Scott Hicks. Starring Anthony Hopkins, David Morse, Hope Davis, Anton Yelchin, Mika Boorem, Will Rothaar.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 28, 2001
It has become cliché to say that “the book was better than the movie,” and doubly so when it comes to Stephen King. Still, it's a truism. The number of notable film adaptations of the horror author's work can be counted on one hand, out of a possible field of twenty-plus (chief among them Rob Reiner's spot-on Stand by Me, still the only film based on a Stephen King story that works its magic on all levels, all the time). Hearts in Atlantis falls squarely into the “near miss” category. Drawn from the author's 1999 novel of the same name, which consisted of four interconnected novellas loosely concerned with the impact of the Vietnam conflict on a young boy (then man) named Bobby Garfield and his friends, the film version deals only with the book's first quarter -- “Low Men in Yellow Coats” -- in which adolescent Bobby (Yelchin) befriends the elderly and mysterious new tenant Ted Brautigan (Hopkins), who has moved into the flat above his mother (Davis) and himself. Single mom Davis is a harpy of great note both in the book and this film version, and Davis gives her bitter and unending “your father never met an inside straight he didn't like” schtick a good deal of crucial believability. Davis overplays it though, as does most everyone else according to William Goldman's somewhat caustic albeit economical script. Only Hopkins, coasting a bit on the downhill side of his own scenery-chewing turn as Lecter redux, seems to know what to make of the proceedings. Goldman's script also entirely dispenses with some of King's supernatural elements; the writer's “low men in yellow coats,” which were otherworldly forces with ties to King's Dark Tower mythos in the book, are now black-jacketed G-men, apparently out to gang-press old Mr. Brautigan -- a psychic -- into service for the red, white, and blue. What was surreal and hazy in the book is now just hazy, though, and Brautigan's motivations are hard to read. The film concerns itself chiefly with Bobby's burgeoning manhood, also an element in the book but not its main focus. Yelchin gives a competent performance as the curly-headed scamp, but something about his performance -- too ingratiatingly wide-eyed, too self-consciously of “the Sixties” -- made me bite down hard every time he wandered into frame. Tough luck for me since he's in virtually every shot. Davis' screechy turn as Bobby's worrisome mom elicited a similar mental gag reflex. There's too much of everything in these performances, and the acting is right out in front for all to see, instead of quietly lurking in the shadows like it ought to be. The only one who escapes unmauled by either Goldman's revisionist script or cast members' misplaced intensity is Mika Boorem as Carol, Bobby's first love. She manages to inject a note of real pathos and joy into a film that positively aches for both and comes up wanting. I had looked forward to seeing King's low men and their hideous yellow coats and monstrous high-finned automobiles, but what we've got here is less King than Goldman, and less fun to boot.