Hearts in Atlantis is well-meaning sludge, based on slightly worse well-meaning sludge that didn’t have Anthony Hopkins going for it. Stephen King’s 1999 book of the same name was his glancing, sidewise attempt at something serious and significant, and some of the material in the book’s five sections was powerful — the story “Hearts in Atlantis,” for instance, with its Vietnam-era college students playing the card game Hearts to distract them from the looming draft. The movie has taken the name of that story and the book, but it has nothing to do with the story; it’s based instead on the book’s first section, “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” one of the sappiest and most self-derivative things King has ever allowed into print.
Hopkins, at this point, knows he doesn’t have to do much. He lets his eyes twinkle with warmth or wisdom, or he’ll draw out a syllable to put a quiet stamp of authority on whatever he says — he’s coasting here, really, but it’s generally entertaining coasting. As Ted Brautigan, a mysterious man who befriends 11-year-old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin), Hopkins gets to wear a wreath of the uncanny while projecting pure virtue. He also gets to deliver solemn platitudes while Bobby and the camera hang on every word. He can’t really do anything with Ted except embody him amiably, though; screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) don’t give him anything fresh to work with.
Ted joins a long line of King heroes given extraordinary powers (in this case, mind-reading) only to find the world eager to destroy them or misuse their gifts. A bit of Ted’s power passes into Bobby, who uses it to pick the Queen of Hearts at a carnival card game; that’s supposed to explain the “hearts” in the title, and Goldman gives Ted a speech to cover the rest: “Sometimes when you’re young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you’re living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been … then we grow up and our hearts break into two.” So Atlantis becomes the lost kingdom of childhood innocence, rather than the ’60s metaphor King intended. Either way it’s a bit florid.
Bobby is working on a flirtation with his first great love, Carol (Mika Boorem), and steering around the disapproval of his frazzled mom (Hope Davis, doing the best she can with a character that barely makes sense). Ted is being chased by “low men,” who seek him for dark purposes gradually revealed (none too adroitly — in one of those movie scenes where a newspaper headline pops up just in time to slide the plot point into its slot). Goldman and Hicks frame the story with the adult Bobby (David Morse), now married with three kids, heading back to the old hometown for a friend’s funeral. He narrates, too, just like Richard Dreyfuss in Stand by Me, except only at the beginning and end; you expect him to close with “I never had any psychic old-man friends later on like the one I had when I was 11. Jesus, did anyone?”
Hearts in Atlantis carries a dedication to its cinematographer, Piotr Sobocinski, who died at 42 a few months before this was released; he shot a few films for the acclaimed director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Sobocinski drowns the film in golden sunlight, except for the adult-Bobby scenes, which are drained and blue, as if adulthood were a vampire sucking the life out of us all. If you’re born with anything special about you, life will beat it out of you with a baseball bat or use it for dark designs. King and Goldman are both champion sentimentalists of the past (Goldman tosses in an anecdote about football legend Bronko Nagurski, a boyhood hero of Goldman’s invoked in many of his books, and Hopkins gets to reprise a little magic trick he did in Magic, which Goldman wrote); put them together and you have two guys who seem so depressed about their lives today that they yearn for childhood. “Then we grow up and our hearts break into two.” Whose heart? Goldman’s? King’s? A movie that says we might as well pack it in as soon as we turn 18 is more bitter than bittersweet.