The latest Stephen King adaptation, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone falls flat thanks to lifeless acting and lazy screenwriting.
Stephen King is best known for his massive novels that require weight training just to hold. Entire forest ecosystems have been destroyed so we can have The Stand on our bookshelves. These epic tales are his bread and butter, but if you want to get a pure distillation of what makes King a gifted horror writer and storyteller, check out his short story collections. They provide the strong, grounded characters facing terrifying circumstances that he’s famous for in his longer novels, but in a digestible format. He can be hit or miss (even the best writers may have stinkers when they write an astonishing ten pages a day like King) but if one short story is garbage, chances are the next one will be a fun time.
The same goes for King movie adaptations. For every Misery, there are eleven Children of the Corn films. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, now streaming for Netflix, sadly goes on the stinker pile. Based on the novella (shorter than a novel, longer than a short story) from King’s 2020 collection If It Bleeds, Mr. Harrigan is a stretched out Black Mirror episode in search of anything interesting to say.
John Lee Hancock, the filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning The Blind Side, directs and writes the adaptation here, but can’t bring any personality or narrative momentum with it. The film stars Jaeden Martell, a few years after leading the Losers Club into battle against Pennywise the child eating clown in 2017’s It, one of the best recent King adaptations. Here he plays Craig, a lonely teenager entering high school who’s mourning the recent death of his mother. He befriends the local millionaire banker, Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), who hires him to do small jobs and read books to him. He makes Craig read classics such as Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, and every little boy’s favorite, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Mr. Harrigan is as hated as he is rich, living in his dark mansion without a TV or radio (it would distract him from making more money I guess), but he sees something in Craig that allows him to let this one person into his life and relax his spiky defenses. It’s like if Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life became friends with one of George Bailey’s kids and paid them to read Russian novels to him.
When Craig enters high school, it’s 2007. Side bangs are in style, and the first-generation iPhone is released. He realizes all the cool kids at school already have the iPhone, so he gets one too. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrigan gifts Craig a winning scratch off lottery ticket, and as a thank you, Craig buys Harrigan his own iPhone. In a scene that’s nostalgic for a time before those tiny bricks changed the world but so pro-iPhone, I’m surprised this isn’t an Apple TV+ release, Craig convinces the tech resistant Harrigan to embrace the phone after he tells him he can follow his precious stock market in real time.
After warning Craig with a prescient and eye-rolling monologue about the dangers of smartphones (fake news, have you heard of this?), old man Harrigan passes away. At his sparsely attended funeral, Craig places Harrigan’s phone in his casket with him, but things get spooky when he starts getting cryptic texts from the phone, after it’s buried six feet underground.
The entire film hinges on the relationship between Craig and Harrigan, but neither the script nor the actors seem interested in creating any chemistry. They both sleepwalk through their scenes together, quoting Henry David Thoreau at each other instead of building a meaningful connection. It’s just scene after scene of Craig reading (my favorite is him reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to this greedy capitalist who’s scandalized by what he hears) without us knowing why this kid is spending so much time with this mean old man. Harrigan asks him directly why he does it at one point and the answer sounds like a lame excuse the script is making up as it goes along.
Mr. Harrigan is a stretched out Black Mirror episode in search of anything interesting to say.
We know what we’re supposed to feel, because Craig’s never-ending voiceover tells us. The voiceover is so present it becomes numbing, like giving a dying patient morphine to hide all the pain. In one example, Craig is friends with a girl named Margie (Alexa Niziak), who has a crush on him, but Craig just wants to stay friends. The puzzling thing is we don’t see any of this play out in action. It’s just a voiceover while Craig walks around his school that says, “Margie had a crush on me, but I didn’t like her like that.” There’s never any hint of a vibe between these two because we never actually see them interact. This poor actress barely has any lines.
The one thing the overwhelming voiceover or tedious plot doesn’t ruin is the bully character, one of King’s specialties. Cyrus Arnold does incredible work with little screen time here as the leather jacket wearing Kenny Yankovich, Craig’s tormentor until a certain call to a certain phone changes things. He’s the only actor here that looks like a teenager, with his greasy hair blocking his eyes and acne marked face, and the only one that feels like a teenager. He’s a gangly creature who shows his insecurity with the way he awkwardly plods through the world, looking for someone to take his anger out with a punch.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone wants to say something about how smartphones have unraveled the fabric of our society by keeping us far apart as we sit close to each other. It wants to say something about the pains of growing up and how we seek out other souls like us to feel less alone. It accomplishes neither of those things. Like calling a phone several feet under the dirt, the reception here is spotty at best.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is now available on Netflix.