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Review: 'Atlantis' offers good acting, frustrating plot


By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "Hearts In Atlantis" has an exceptional pedigree.

The original story is by Stephen King ("Stand By Me," 1986 and "The Greenmile," 1999), the script was written by Oscar winner William Goldman ("All The President's Men," 1976), it's directed by Scott Hicks ("Shine," 1996), and stars another Oscar winner, Sir Anthony Hopkins. (Take your pick from Hopkins's long list of credits, starting with "The Silence of the Lambs" in 1991.) If resumes counted in Hollywood, this film would be a no-brainer hit. Of course, in Hollywood resumes don't count. In this town the cry is "What have you done for me lately." Unfortunately, this limp "coming of age" story reinforces that sentiment. The answer, in this case, for all involved is "nuttin'."

The costume designs by Julie Weiss and the overall production designs by Barbara C. Ling are excellent. Set in 1960, the atmosphere surrounding the 11-year-old protagonist is picture perfect. The acting, across the board, is also perfectly pitched. Unfortunately, practically everything else just doesn't work.

CNN's Paul Clinton pans the new U.S. release 'Hearts in Atlantis' starring Sir Anthony Hopkins (October 9)

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Movie trailer for 'Hearts in Atlantis'

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Told in flash back -- for no apparent reason -- the film begins with a grown-up Bobby Garfield (David Morse) working in his photo studio when he receives a FedEx package containing a baseball glove. The glove belonged to his boyhood buddy John Sullivan, known as Sully. Sully has died, and left Bobby his glove. Immediately Bobby rushes to the small New England town where he grew up and where Sully is being buried. Bobby is hoping to reunite with another childhood pal, Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem), but sadly he's informed she too has passed away. He then takes a journey to his old house, which is now condemned. The flashback begins.

Young Bobby is played by Russian-born actor Anton Yelchin (who was brought to the United States as a baby by his parents who were Russian national figure skating champions). This is his seventh film in two years -- and this 11-year-old is already an accomplished actor.

Bobby and his widowed mother Liz (Hope Davis) live in the lower half of a rental house. Out of nowhere their new neighbor, Ted Brautighan (Hopkins), appears with paper bags substituting for suitcases. This makes him immediately suspicious as far as Liz is concerned, but Bobby soon befriends the stranger.

Ted gives Bobby a job. The older man's eyesight is supposedly going bad and he needs Bobby to read the newspaper to him in return for paying the boy a dollar a week. Ted also has another request. He asks Bobby to be on the lookout for strange men wearing dark suits and hats, and driving flashy cars. When asked what they want, Ted replies, "What they want is me, back under their control." To which Bobby endearingly replies, "Don't worry, I won't let the boogie man get you."

When pressed further Ted admits, "I know certain things, see certain things. Some people think of it as a gift. But to me, it's always been a burden." Ted, you see, is a psychic with enormous abilities. The "boogie men" are supposedly F.B.I. agents trying to retrieve Ted back into the agency's secret program which uses psychics to check out whomever J. Edgar Hoover is building a file on -- which, in 1960, is about half the country.

The jeopardy is very hollow, the strange men are only seen in shadow, and the sense of dread -- achieved mainly through Mychael Danna's overwrought musical score -- never seems real. Hick's direction lacks pacing until the very end, but at least the story moves, which was not the case with his last effort, "Snow Falling On Cedars." That film was like watching frozen amber.

The character of Sully, who is so instrumental in driving the plot at the beginning of the story, is never developed. Played by Will Rothhaar, this poor guy has absolutely nothing to do, as he flickers around a few scenes like a moth batting itself against a porch light.

As Carol, Boorem fairs a bit better, but not by much. Carol's death is never explored or explained. She's just another loose end left dangling by Goodman's -- strangely empty -- script.

Bobby's mother, played beautifully by Davis, has a thankless role as a self-absorbed, selfish woman who considers her child a burden. Her lack of parental concern is vital in order to drive Bobby into Ted's orbit. Once there the scenes between Hopkins and young Yelchin are brilliant as Ted attempts to help Bobby through the passage from innocence into awareness about the world around him.

But ultimately, that is what is most frustrating about this film. The acting is so good, you almost want to forgive the fact that they're not saying anything, and the film has no real point. When it ends you'll wonder where you are, and why you got there.


• Hearts in Atlantis

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