Mr. Harrigan’s phone review: Don’t pick up when Stephen King’s dismal adaptation calls
Reading the autumnal work of a decades-old master like Stephen King is enriched not just by the experience that comes with age, but by the ages themselves. With King in particular, as a writer who gave pop culture injections – listening to the Stones, drinking Coke, popping an Advil – one of his down-to-earth signatures, watching him acclimate and integrating new technology into its stories is a rare perspective-changing gift. Mr. Harrigan’s phoneits news from the 2020 collection If it bleeds, is an ode to the iPhone. Sweeter than scary, more thoughtful than scary, she takes us on a little trip to Steve Jobs Pet sematary. King continues to enjoy his smartphone, if his Twitter presence is to be believed, but he certainly won’t like Netflix’s adaptation of his story.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, an indie filmmaker of the genre who helped Sandra Bullock get her embarrassing Oscar for The blind side before turning to other forgettable dramas, Mr. Harrigan’s phone has several red flags on speed dial. There’s the near-constant voiceover, the first and perhaps the most damning sign of a weak adapter. Craig (Jaeden Martell) just won’t shut up about the time he spent reading novels to local billionaire Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), the deadly fallout that followed and all that. supposed for him, an impressionable youngster with a new iPhone. Mr. Harrigan’s phone doesn’t just cloud the story and hold our hands like nearly every movie made from a book does, but excises King’s talents as a new manager jealously dismissing the old guard. It might have taken a bit of imagination to do the same. Mr. Harrigan’s phone didn’t involve us listening to a Stephen King CliffNotes audiobook, or watching Craig painstakingly recite the short story over a grave, but Hancock demonstrates an impressive lack throughout. His film is naive and inert – the cinematic equivalent of a bricked iPhone.
His film also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the emotional core of the story. Craig delivers a tearful speech, an opportunity to confess his affection for Harrigan in a way King’s character never had. So when Harrigan eventually dies and King’s inevitably supernatural turn comes, there’s nothing left unsaid — the relatable sentiment inside an otherwise silly “texting with a ghost” premise — that would push Craig to want to communicate with the deceased.
The deceased also takes a beating: Sutherland, with appropriate gravity, adds as much nuance as possible to a character who, unfortunately and necessarily, only appears sporadically for 30 minutes of the film. But his retired tycoon is without detail, without personality. It reflects the simple, primary colors with which companion Hancock paints his world fearlessly and cheaply. It’s Hancock’s first horror-adjacent film, and it exposes him as incompetent in the genre: Harrigan’s mansion is caricatured in a seedy Hammer-style setting, with leering gardeners, a haunting piano score, eerie clock chimes and spooky stares through frosted windows. In turn, Harrigan sits like a plastic Spirit Halloween skeleton – a skeleton whose backstory of financial domination (he’s a billionaire, after all) is told to us through the kind of bold article with which Google ruined the movies.
“EVERYTHING HARRIGAN TOUCH DIES,” cries a particularly prescient headline. Harrigan is a far crueler man in the film, a socialism-hating industrialist accused of the suicide of a thieving employee. The ex-employee, fired by his “rich asshole” boss according to a local trailer park stereotype, painted “FU H” on his garage before driving and breathing in the exhaust fumes. “No one could figure out what that meant,” the stereotype claims. Those who have the misfortune to populate Mr. Harrigan’s phone must be as dumb as the movie thinks we are. This low opinion of his audience is apparent at every stage of his story and in some of his weirder creative choices. The books that Craig reads to Harrigan (heart of darkness, The jungleetc.) have their titles displayed on the screen, not quite calling us illiterate, but certainly implying it.
Stretched to 106 minutes of pulling teeth, Mr. Harrigan’s phone protest too much. With its edits taken from bad CW teen shows, its unintentionally hilarious added scenes (a Hancock Original sees Craig read A tale of two cities to a corpse) and his complete lack of humanity, Mr. Harrigan’s phone misses all of King’s warmth, which means he also misses his chills. You can’t believe the ghosts of a story if you can’t believe those who are supposed to leave them behind.
Sutherland is an ironic piece of life amidst a cast as wooden as a cheap tombstone. They’re as simple as adaptation, with Cyrus Arnold being the worst offender as a textbook bully and Martell being right behind as a kid with even less behind his eyes than his point of view. Thisit’s Bill. You can’t believe Craig and Harrigan bond over exciting advances in technology because there’s no excitement and nothing to bond over. You certainly don’t care that after Harrigan’s death, Craig gets some weird and disturbing texts as he grows up. It’s not just a question of writing, but of tone, structure and timing. Martell and Hancock can’t even do Win the lottery exciting, as a freebie from Harrigan nets $3,000…offscreen. Martell announces his price as if he matched the numbers just before learning his dog got run over.
So, without style, without nuance or central narrative theme, what remains of this short story? A case, with a name stuck on it – an “iPhone” bought from a peddler, the metallic apple-shaped sticker peeling off slightly on one edge. In King’s story, Craig laments that those present at Harrigan’s funeral never knew his human side. His love of country music, his distaste for swaggering Rush Limbaugh, his devotion to gut-cleansing oatmeal cookies. Mr. Harrigan’s phone sins in the same way: he knows the surface of his source, but nothing of what matters.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: John Lee Hancock
With : Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott
Release date: October 5, 2022 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is a film editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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