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[whitespace] 'Hearts in Atlantis' Creature Comforts: Anthony Hopkins takes a young boy (Anton Yelchin) under his wing.

Autumn Leaves

'Hearts in Atlantis': Stephen King in Norman Rockwell's shoes

By Richard von Busack

IT'S HARD TO figure how audiences will react to this film. On the one hand people have been softened up by recent terror and are ready to have the nostalgia nerve pinched. On the other hand, the film is very close to the dregs of the bottomless barrel of Stephen King. Here he's working in the Norman Rockwell field, in a story that crosses Needful Things with Stand by Me.

In 1960, in a New England town, the fatherless boy Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) is being raised, sort of, by his mom Liz (Hope Davis, better than her role). The aging, world-weary stranger Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves into the apartment upstairs. He has the gift of second sight, and is a fugitive from mysterious pursuers. Events come to a head when Liz leaves her son for the weekend, despite her suspicions that the old man might be unnaturally fond of boys. (The fact that she suspects such a thing proves what a silly creature she is.)

Hopkins, as we've seen, can be an evil delight as Dr. Lecter, or Picasso, or in the mad scenes in Titus. He can also be Sir Anthony Hopkins, living embodiment of a stale theatrical tradition that always seems classy to American (or in this case Australian) directors. Here, he's mostly the latter. Hopkins is impressive in a pair of scenes: one, a little monologue about the last touchdown of football great Bronko Nagurski; the other, in the most typically Stephen King moment in the film, when he uses his gifts as a psychic to cow a neighborhood bully.

It's actually David Morse who gives the most memorable performance. In the film's opening and closing sequences, Morse plays the elder Bobby, his lost past told in flashbacks. Morse emotes the anger and confusion of grief beautifully. And to his credit, director Scott Hicks (Shine) does tend to dry up this wet material, though Hearts in Atlantis is overproduced to the extreme. Occasionally, Hicks recalls director Terrence Malick in passages of afternoon reveries, wind chimes on the front porch, a farewell scene first half-hidden and then eclipsed by white sheets on a clothesline.

In one moment, Hopkins quotes Ben Jonson on the subject of time, "the old, bold cheater." Screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride) is as old and bold and cheating as anyone in the business. Some may swallow the film's "truths" whole: that childhood is our happiest time, that a fabulous land like Atlantis could exist; that our first kiss "is the one you'll measure all others by" (What, that dry smooch with Sandra Baldwin? She was 6 years old and had a lazy-eye patch!), and finally, that a negligent mother ought to watch her step. There's neither enough supernatural nor film noir elements here to disguise the sour tastes of Goldman's moralizing, or to hide Hearts of Atlantis' grim approval of the way Liz gets a harsh lesson on the importance of being a stay-home parent.

Hearts in Atlantis (PG-13; 101 min.) Directed by Scott Hicks, written by Stephen King and William Goldman, starring Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis and David Morse, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the September 27-October 3, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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