It was the last golden time in America, before the Cuban Missile Crisis and Lee Harvey Oswald, when boys in jeans and crew cuts and Converse sneakers played Monopoly on sun-dappled porches and cherubic girls in pedal pushers skipped down to the creek to read Nancy Drew books in green-leafed seclusion. It was a time when a young boy’s greatest aspiration was to be the proud owner of a Schwinn Black Phantom bike, before being around girls started to make him feel weird and hair started growing in strange places.
And then along comes Anthony Hopkins, swinging a spiked war club and smashing his way through 11-year-old Bobby Garfield’s life. “I am Raging Adolescence, and this is my battle truncheon The End of Innocence!” Hopkins screams as he rampages his way through poor Bobby’s psyche, leaving nothing but the debris of kidhood and sad knowledge of the adult world in his wake.
Hopkins doesn’t actually scream, of course. Hopkins would never scream. Instead, he mumbles and never quite makes eye contact, which makes him a Great Actor and makes everyone go “Ooooo” and “Aaahhh” at his performance.
Ted Brautigan (Hopkins: Hannibal, The Grinch) moves into the upstairs apartment above Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his widowed mom, Elizabeth (Hope Davis: Mumford, Arlington Road). Because Hearts in Atlantis is based on a Stephen King novella, there is something vaguely supernatural about Ted — it’s a sort of nebulous mysteriousness, so vague and undefined that when he tells Elizabeth, vaguely and mysteriously, that he is from “the North,” I thought, “Santa?” And when Ted sets Bobby on a secret mission to watch out for the “low men” who are after him, I concluded, “Ah, the elves.” If the movie is not gonna give me the information I need, I feel entirely justified in supplying it myself.
And also because this is based on King, there is childhood purity of heart to be lost. There’s a carnival and a baseball glove and a first kiss… and big, scary cars with aggressive fins and Mom’s creepy, overly familiar boss. Sex rears its ugly yet fascinating head as Bobby’s friend Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem: The Patriot, Mighty Joe Young) starts getting mighty appealing. It’s very sweet… until all sorts of abusive males start clouding up the picture. Bobby, of course, is a veritable knight in shining armor, but does almost every other guy in the movie need to be such a pig, and every female a punching bag? We get it. We got it in the first hundred coming-of-age movies.
The film looks gorgeous — all late-afternoon sunlight and adorably elfin-yet-serious child actors — but that truncheon just keeps bashing you in the head: Isn’t! Growing! Up! Scary! Yet! Kinda! Interesting! Which is hardly surprising, considering that director Scott Hicks’ last film was Snow Falling on Cedars, another beautiful-looking film that was nothing more than an empty shell of propped-up emotion and pretty cardboard characters.
King’s novella was adapted by screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote The Princess Bride but also, we must never forget, dreck like The General’s Daughter. Is Goldman the one who came up with Ted’s adventure in babysitting, when he drags Bobby to the sleazy part of town called “Down There”?
Slam! That one gets you right between the eyes, doesn’t it?