HEARTS IN ATLANTISPG-13
"What if one of life's great mysteries moved in upstairs?" That's the intriguing tag line for Hearts in Atlantis, Scott Hicks' likeable, nostalgic movie that walks a smooth tightrope between a coming-of-age tale and a dark, long-forgotten "Twilight Zone" episode.
It's the summer of 1960 in New England and young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) is looking forward to celebrating his 11th birthday. Unfortunately, there's not much to do in the sleepy town where Bobby and his mother Liz (Hope Davis) appear to be stuck for an unlimited time. Liz is used to watching the days disappear, but Bobby longs for something to change his everyday world. Little does he know that he will be transformed by an enigmatic stranger named Ted who will rent lodgings in Liz's boarding house and change Bobby's life forever.
Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) is the sort of mild-mannered sage who has just enough knowledge to impress an 11-year old. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Ted is an expert on breaking wind, followed by an innocent look, as if to say "Was that me?". Ted also knows a few things about philosophy, literature and art, including the artists given to flatulence. Needless to say, it doesn't take Bobby long to develop a kind of hero worship toward this enigmatic lodger, who seems to personify the jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
Based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, Hearts in Atlantis is a compact tale that may remind some filmgoers of Shane, in which a boy's hero worship of a questionable stranger provides a path of sorts into maturity. In a low-key performance, Hopkins is fascinating as Ted, the lodger, a charismatic gent who can recite poetry, talk about authors and composers and actually make them interesting for a young boy. Ted even provides Bobby with some notes on kissing girls: "That first kiss," Ted predicts, "will be the kiss by which all others in your life will be judged and found wanting." Bobby, meantime, fantasizes about Ted's mysterious life, in which he drives flashy cars and is compelled to stay on the run, lest he be captured by "low men" who are best not asked about.
Hope Davis is entirely believable as Liz, Bobby's concerned mother who wants to bring her boy up right but also longs for a man closer to her own age to live with someday. Bobby's fascination with Ted troubles Liz, but she recognizes that, at least, her boy is connecting with a male presence.
Hearts in Atlantis is often reminiscent of similar movies which took more chances and probed more deeply into the darker edge of horror. One could cite The Green Mile, also from Stephen King, and The Shining, from King again, but Hearts never really goes much beyond a predictable family drama with a few supernatural touches. Certainly, those flourishes are strong enough to sustain our interest, but Hearts in Atlantis never quite makes up its mind whether it's a suspense thriller, a horror movie or a family tale.