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Hearts in Atlantis is not bad. In fact, it has some very good qualities. But director Scott (“Shine”) Hicks and screenwriter William Goldman mix a few too many stories, subplots, and details to make a solid whole. Hearts in Atlantis ends up as a forgettable piece of nostalgia filmmaking.

That Sixties Show

Father Figure Anthony Hopkins guides our protagonist through Hearts in AtlantisHearts in Atlantis is about friendship and growing up. It’s about first kisses, neighborhood bullies, and the loss of innocence. It’s also about magic and the danger of being different. It’s about learning not to fear what you don’t know, and to trust the ones you love. It’s like TV’s The Wonder Years, but with a big Hollywood budget, and all crammed in to 2 little hours.

Bobby (Anton Yelchin) is about eleven years old, growing up in the early 1960s. He lives alone with his mother, having lost his father five years ago. Mom (played with appropriate distress by Hope Davis) is so poor that for his birthday, Bobby receives only a library card. Well, mom isn’t actually that poor – she has an extensive wardrobe because she believes that dressing for success is the surest way to find it. The point is that they don’t have any extra money. In fact they take in boarders to help pay the bills.

One of the best things about Hearts in Atlantis is its treatment of the time and place. Authentic clothes and furnishings seem to fit naturally on the actors. The houses and cars seem to have traveled through time. Goldman’s dialogue, on the whole, feels authentic. Best of all, the cinematography is pure golden nostalgia, without becoming too cheesy. If you were one of the few people to see and appreciate Inventing the Abbots, you might also appreciate Atlantis’ set design and cinematography.

Father Figure

Ted Brautigan, played by the great Sir Anthony Hopkins, is a kindly and clean-cut drifter. He becomes the latest boarder to join Bobby and his mother in their home. Mom is a little suspicious of him, her protective maternal instincts overreacting, but Bobby takes to him within a few days, giving Ted his friendship and respect..

Ted is the father figure Bobby has been missing. Ted seems to know everything about the world, and Bobby learns just by being around him. He also gives Bobby a job. It’s a way for Bobby to earn money for that bike he’s always wanted, plus it’s educational, intriguing, and fun. Ted has Bobby read the newspapers to him every day (his eyes aren’t what they used to be), and he has Bobby look for evidence of strange men descending on the town – just the sort of mysterious adventure a boy Bobby’s age would find irresistible.

Hopkins may well be the best actor of our day. He proves it in Hearts in Atlantis by delivering a cheesy monologue about Bronko Nagurski’s big comeback game. In the hands of anyone other than Hopkins, the scene would play to inappropriate laughter. But Hopkins sells it, damn it. He sells it. Tears well up as he stares off into the past, giving the scene way more credit than it deserves.

Nostalgia Filmmaking

William Goldman, master screenwriter that he is, understands that eventually one has to have some conflict in a movie, so the aimless vignettes of Bobby’s childhood soon start to unravel. Ted has to go away. Mom has to find new work. Bobby and his mother have to move away. His friends are getting too distracted by family duties to play anymore.

Eventually, the film comes to an end, not with resolution of conflict, but by stepping back into the present (with David Morse playing grownup Bobby) and saying “yep, those were the good old days.” It’s like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, but not as focused. It’s like Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s great film adaptation of another Stephen King story, only not as effective. In any case, Hearts in Atlantis is a latecomer in this genre, bringing nothing new.

Hearts in Atlantis does have a lot going for it. But for a nostalgia movie, it is entirely too forgettable.