Donald Sutherland and Jaeden Martell co-star in a drama that suggests our smartphones could literally be a portal to hell.
Stephen King has written a host of insightful and chilling stories about moral strength, innocence lost, and the psychic battle that has raged between good and evil since the dawn of time. His 2020 novel “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” – An anti-tech fable about a teenager who befriends a reclusive billionaire, buys the old man an iPhone, slips the device into his coffin when he dies for some reason, and then starts receiving ominous text messages from the same number. after his funeral, he’s definitely not one of them. Such bottom drawer source material proves to be an insurmountable handicap for John Lee Hancock. Netflix adaptation of the same name, a downbeat and utterly terrible supernatural drama that somehow fails to extract even a moment of fun from a cautionary tale based on the idea that your smartphone could literally be a portal to hell.
The first problem is that “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” doesn’t even begin to address that idea until it’s too late, as most of Hancock’s dying script is spent on a strange crossover between “Tuesdays with Morrie” and the less convincing portrayal of the Morrie experience. American high school since the days of “She’s All That” (I’m still mad at Hollywood for making me believe that R&B superstar Usher Raymond could prod my way from biology lab to history class). But where that timeless masterpiece was carried by the himbo charisma of Freddie Prinze Jr. at the height of his powers, this lifeless hard work is anchored to “It” star Jaeden Martell, who delivers a lead performance so whiny and empty. that you can’t help but sympathize with his (ridiculously cartoonish) character’s bully.
The story begins in 2003, when digital technology is just beginning to encroach on the small town of Harlow, Maine, where Craig (whose pre-teen incarnation is played by Colin O’Brien) lives with his widowed and seemingly anonymous father (Joe Tippett). An absurd detail in a movie that has no other kind: Craig’s school kids eventually form cliques based on the kind of smartphones they have, with Razr-heads sitting at one table, BlackBerry users at another, and so on. successively, all the zombified teenagers looking at their screens as if Instagram had already been invented and they weren’t just playing Snake or whatever.
Anyway, Craig can’t afford a phone, which explains why he’s so receptive to a random offer from the local Scrooge, Mr. Harrigan (86 years old). Donald Sutherland, a commanding screen presence in a role that rarely requires her to stand up). The deal is as simple as it is strange: Every week, Craig goes to read classic books to Harrigan at his mansion. “Heart of darkness.” “Crime and Punishment.” “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. All of them pulled from the library shelves of someone too comfortable with his personal canon, someone with little interest in being exposed to anything new towards the end of his life.
For Craig, it’s a steady job after school and a literary education by osmosis. According to Martell’s monotone voiceover, it’s also an escape from the helplessness Craig feels in the real world, the same helplessness that prevented him from saving his mother’s life, but that seemingly crucial part of the equation is forgotten even faster. that the rest of this movie is meant to be. For Harrigan, whose own eyes can no longer bear the strain of reading anything longer than a share price, the deal provides…company, perhaps? The guy’s not exactly an open book. What few insights Hancock does provide for the character are wickedly tossed around to the point of yelling “who cares, it’s just passed on,” even if Sutherland is able to weaponize Harrigan’s loneliness in a way that suggests her own story. riddled with anguish and resentment.
Don’t wait to hear the details, as “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is less interested in digging below the surface—or creating a cohesive sense of conflict, for that matter—than it is in Craig’s repetitive confrontations with his bully (Cyrus Arnold), the bizarre sexual tension that seems to develop between our hero and his favorite professor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and the minutiae of consumer technology around 2008, which is when the worst part of this story is set. The confusing plot only threatens to take shape when Craig gets his hands on a first-generation iPhone (“I had the only iPhone, and [my friends] Billy and U-Boat had to share a Razr,” the gripping narration informs us, a single line about Craig’s social mobility explaining why half the supporting cast suddenly disappears forever), and never has a movie focused both in the initial aesthetics of iOS. , or so determined to get it right.
In a movie whose period trappings are often as flimsy as a needle drop from Yeasayer or a reference to Ask Jeeves, it’s amazing to see how much care went into recreating the chunky interface of Apple’s first phone, right down to the process of setting up a favorite song as a personalized ringtone. Harrigan is especially fond of Tammy Wynette, and the prospect of being able to listen to “Stand by Your Man” at will is what finally gets him excited about the iPhone Craig gives him as a gift one day, that and the chance to get the latest. news before it is printed in the next day’s newspaper. Technologically illiterate as Harrigan is, the old man recognizes this portable faucet of free data as an addictive gateway drug for disinformation.
It stands to reason that King, a terminally online (yet unstoppably prolific) liberal boomer par excellence, would be interested in writing something that frames digital technology as a novelty monkey’s foot, but this particular story is spectacularly inadequate to do so. Sure, it’s weird that Craig would bury Mr. Harrigan with his phone, but the twice-afflicted teen’s compulsion to keep texting or leaving voicemails for his late friend positions mobile devices as a comforting source of connection rather than from a sinister gateway to the worst of ourselves.
Of course, that could be a necessary part of a story about how the gods punish us by answering our prayers (to paraphrase an Oscar Wilde play that Harrigan refuses to have Craig read). And yet the next chapter in this cautionary tale, in which Craig begins to suspect that Harrigan’s ghost is responding to his texts by murdering the boy’s enemies from beyond the grave, is even less relevant. with reality.
That is not to say that “Mr. Harrigan’s phone” necessarily Dyed herald the rise of fake news or serve as a metaphor for the relationship between online complaints and physical violence, but the film does it try to do both, in an irritatingly lukewarm manner and at the direct expense of any intrigue, fright or suspense. An emblematically riveting scene shows Craig going to a local cell phone store to transfer his data to a new device in the hope that by doing so he can break his unholy connection between this world and the next; Who needs “Barbarian” when he can stay home and watch a friendly sales clerk explain how a user’s contact lists can be transferred between two different phones? It’s as creepy as an AT&T commercial, and it was shot with half the energy (for a reliable and competent officer like Hancock, whose credits range from “The Blind Side” to “The Little Things,” the content-based nature of broadcast concerts can be a monkey’s foot of its own).
It is also one of the only scenes in the last hour of “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” which can play out with any semblance of personal urgency, as Craig is never around to witness the consequences of his morally questionable calls for help. If his iPhone distances him from his own actions, he also distances us from caring about them. Or about Craig and his frustrated aspirations to become a screenwriter. The exquisitely silly narration the character writes for this movie (“I think our phones are how we marry the world…it’s a bad marriage”) would seem to suggest that Mr. Harrigan was right to talk Craig out of it. Hollywood, but then again, this movie was made.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” will be available to stream on Netflix beginning Wednesday, October 5.