Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) is let down once again on his 11th birthday when his mother (Hope Davis) gives him a library card instead of the bicycle he really wants. She reminds him that his father left them with next to nothing to survive on--yet, as his best friend points out, she always manages to afford brand-new dresses for work.
A gift of an entirely unexpected kind shows up on his doorstep instead: the mysterious Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), who appears out of nowhere to rent the empty room upstairs. Ted quickly befriends Bobby and offers to pay him a dollar a week to read the paper out loud, thus sparing his failing eyesight. Of course, at that price, there's more to it than that: Ted also wants Bobby to keep an eye out for "low men"--men who wear dark clothing and drive flashy cars and cast long shadows. Bobby is bright and understands that these enigmatic figures aren't real, but he plays along with the game anyway. Gradually and rather reluctantly, Ted becomes the father figure Bobby never had, while his mother grows skeptical of a man who would voluntarily spend so much time with a little kid.
Told in flashback by a grown-up Bobby (David Morse) who returns to his now-shuttered boyhood home upon the death of his best friend, "Hearts in Atlantis" employs rich golden tones in its cinematography (by the late Piotr Sobocinski) and bright primary colors in costuming (by production designer Barbara C. Ling and costume designer Julie Weiss) to convey the circa 1960s era. At first the effect is delightful: Bobby gapes longingly at the Schwinn Phantom displayed in the toy-store window, and when his expression turns panic-stricken when he thinks it might go home with someone else, it's downright charming.
But Ted's insights soon wear thin with the help of an overbearing camera and score. The old man tells an incredulous Bobby that he'll kiss his sweetheart Carol (Mika Boorem) before the end of the summer, "and it will be the kiss by which all others are judged." Meanwhile, the shot zooms in slowly on his faraway gaze, and the soundtrack swells to manipulate the viewer's emotions.
That's not to say that Sir Hopkins doesn't deliver a professional performance as always. What's surprising is that he is matched by Yelchin (a wide-eyed yet precocious innocent reminiscent of a pre-"Lord of the Rings" Elijah Wood) and Boorem, novice actors who previously appeared together in "Along Came a Spider." Their zingers--"Ted," Bobby says tentatively when Ted suggests they converse on a first-name basis. "That'll be hard for me."--aren't the least bit affected.
Ultimately it becomes clear that Ted has a certain insight--bringing up Bobby's beloved bike before the boy mentions it, driving away the neighborhood bully by alluding to his "dark secret," betting on the underdog in a boxing match and winning big. And that he can pass it on to others: After embracing Ted, Bobby takes a card shark at the local fair to town, even though his mother has warned him repeatedly against playing cards for money.
Eventually Ted is taken away, and, in predictable coming-of-age fashion, the grown-up Bobby claims the summer he spent with Ted has changed him forever. But the viewer has to ask: How? Bobby is now a photographer, shooting pictures through prisms to create unique images. The argument could be made that now he sees the world differently--more clearly, if distortedly. But his window of prescience was open only momentarily--Bobby shared Ted's power just that one time--and it is unclear what lasting effect the strange old man actually had. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Mika Boorem and David Morse. Directed by Scott Hicks. Written by William Goldman. Produced by Kerry Heysen. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic scenes. Running time: 100 min