Producers: Ryan Murphy, Jason Blum and Carla Hacken Director: John Lee Hancock Screenplay: John Lee Hancock Cast: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott, Thalia Torio and Daniel Reece Distributor: Netflix
The mellow, meditative, melancholy side of Stephen King is on view in John Lee Hancock’s adaptation of a story from his 2020 collection “If It Bleeds.” Comparisons might be drawn to “Hearts in Atlantis” (Scott Hicks’s 2001 film, not the 1999 story with that title), which like “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” is centered on the bond that develops between a boy and an old man. A supernatural element is introduced, but for the most part it’s the human side of things that dominates. Hicks’s film is superior to Hancock’s, but then it remains one of the better King adaptations, if a very loose one.
The protagonist in “Phone” is fourteen-year old Craig (Colin O’Brien), who lives with his widowed father (Joe Tippett) in the small town of Harlow, Maine; the time is the early 2000s. The richest man in town, Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), hears Craig read a lesson in church and offers him a job reading to him from books in his library several hours a week, since his eyesight is failing. (In “Atlantis,” Anthony Hopkins’ Ted similarly pays Anton Yelchin’s Bobby to read him the papers.)
The two get to know one another during their reading sessions, which extend over some years until Craig (now played by Jaeden Martell) goes off to high school in a neighboring town, where he quickly catches the unfriendly eye of Kenny (Cyrus Arnold), the campus bully and drug-dealer. Harrigan, a powerful finance mogul, impresses on Craig the necessity of dealing harshly with enemies, but the boy’s understandably intimated by thuggish Kenny.
In the course of their friendship Harrigan has given Craig lottery tickets as presents, and eventually one proves a winner. His father has given him a newly-released iPhone as a Christmas gift, and he uses part of his winnings to purchase one for Harrigan as well. Despite initial resistance, the old man becomes as addicted to the device as Craig and his fellow students, although he prophesizes about the dangers it poses (and, as many now realize, has caused). (Oddly, the theme of addiction also plays a role in King’s “Atlantis” story, though there a group of young men get hooked on a card game, with disastrous effect.)
When Harrigan suddenly dies, a stricken Craig places the dead man’s phone in the coffin; and when he’s beaten up by Kenny, he texts his deceased friend about it. When Kenny dies in an accidental fall soon after, Craig wonders whether Harrigan is responsible. Later, when Craig’s favorite high school teacher (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is killed by a drunk driver (Daniel Reece) who gets off with a short stint in a luxurious rehab center, he asks another favor of his dead friend and benefactor, but not without misgivings.
King’s story is a pretty slight piece, which might have better served as the basis for an episode in a TV anthology series. (In fact “The Twilight Zone” did a couple of half-hour episodes about phone message from the grave, “Long Distance All” in 1961 and “Night Call” in 1964.) Perhaps as a result, Hancock and editor Robert Franzen adopt a solemn pace that brings the tale to feature length, but at the expense of sluggishness.
As the comparisons with “Hearts of Atlantis” indicate, moreover, it traffics in familiar King tropes (the schoolyard bully appears in innumerable King works), and though the smartphone gambit adds a new touch, it comes with some caveats—is it really credible that in 2008 or so, high school kids would segregate themselves in the cafeteria based on which brand of phones they had, and spend all their time staring at the screens while their phone-less classmates stood outside the room, jealously watching them from the hallway through a glass partition? (Perhaps this is intended to hit an amusing note, though it’s ponderously presented, and the rest of the picture is conspicuous for its lack of humor, save for the Tammy Wynette “Stand by Your Man” ringtone Craig installs on the phones.) Moreover, the monitory comments Harrigan, and at the end Craig, make about the pernicious powers of the devices are crushingly obvious.
Still, the film remains watchable, due to an unobtrusive period look (production design by Michael Corenblith and costumes by Daniel Orlandi), elegantly understated cinematography by John Schwartzman, and a typically cunning performance by Sutherland. When he leaves the scene, unhappily, the requirement of carrying the film passes entirely to Martell, who seems a nice enough young man but not a terribly compelling actor; here he underplays morosely throughout, even when he gets a date for a dance with his crush (Thalia Torio); he does match up fairly well, though, with O’Brien, who’s equally subdued. The supporting cast is merely okay, with Tippett making little impression while Arnold makes too much. Javier Navarrete’s score doesn’t come on too strong.
Among the innumerable movies made from King stories, this one is middle-grade, neither as appalling as some nor as memorable as others. It’s like a number that you see on Caller ID that you recognize, but waver before answering.