Stephen King has written any number of perceptive and bone-chilling stories about moral strength, innocence lost, and the psychic battle that has raged between good and evil since the beginning of time. His 2020 novella “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” — an anti-tech fable about a teenage boy who befriends a reclusive billionaire, buys the old man an iPhone, slips the device into his casket when he dies for some reason, and then starts receiving ominous text messages from the same number after the funeral — is definitely not one of them. Such bottom-drawer source material proves to be an insurmountable disadvantage for John Lee Hancock’s Netflix adaptation of the same name, a downcast and thoroughly dreadful supernatural drama that somehow fails to mine even a moment of fun out of a cautionary tale premised on the idea that your smartphone might literally be a portal to hell.
The first problem is that “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” doesn’t even begin to broach that idea until it’s already too late, as the majority of Hancock’s moribund script is spent on an awkward cross between “Tuesdays with Morrie” and the least convincing portrayal of the American high school experience since the days of “She’s All That” (I’m still mad at Hollywood for making me believe that R&B superstar Usher Raymond might DJ my walk from bio 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 slog is anchored to “It” star Jaeden Martell, who gives a lead performance so whimpering and vacant that you can’t help but sympathize with his character’s (ridiculously cartoonish) bully.
The story kicks off in 2003, when digital technology is just starting to invade the small town of Harlow, Maine, where Craig (whose pre-teen incarnation is played by Colin O’Brien) lives with his widowed and seemingly nameless father (Joe Tippett). One absurd detail in a movie that doesn’t have any other kind: The kids at Craig’s school eventually form into cliques based on the kind of smartphones they have, with the Razr-heads sitting at one table, the BlackBerry users at another, and so forth — all of the zombified teens staring at their screens as if Instagram had already been invented and they’re not just playing Snake or whatever.
Anyway, Craig can’t afford a phone, which explains why he’s so receptive to a random offer from local Scrooge, Mr. Harrigan (86-year-old Donald Sutherland, a commanding screen presence in a role that rarely even requires him to stand up). The deal is as simple as it is strange: Every week, Craig will go and read classic books to Harrigan in his mansion. “Heart of Darkness.” “Crime and Punishment.” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” All of them plucked from the library shelves of someone who’s all too comfortable with their personal canon — someone with little interest in exposing himself to anything new toward the end of his life.
For Craig, it’s a steady after-school job and a literary education by osmosis. According to Martell’s monotone voiceover, it’s also an escape from the powerlessness that Craig feels in the real world — the same powerlessness that prevented him from saving his mother’s life — but that seemingly crucial part of the equation is forgotten even faster than the rest of this movie is destined to be. For Harrigan, whose own eyes can no longer bear the strain of reading anything longer than a stock price, the arrangement provides… companionship, perhaps? The guy isn’t exactly an open book. What few insights Hancock provides to the character are perversely tossed off to a degree that screams “who cares, it’s only streaming,” even if Sutherland is able to weaponize Harrigan’s loneliness in a way that suggests its own serrated history of heartaches and resentments.
Don’t expect to learn any of the details, as “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is less interested in digging under the surface — or generating any coherent sense of conflict, for that matter — than it is in Craig’s repetitive confrontations with his bully (Cyrus Arnold), the weird sexual tension that seems to develop between our hero and his favorite teacher (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and the minutiae of consumer technology circa 2008, which is when the brunt of this story is set. The shambling 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 thrilling narration informs us, a single line about Craig’s social mobility explaining why half of the supporting cast suddenly disappears forever), and no movie has ever been so focused on the early iOS aesthetic, or so determined to get it right.
In a film whose period trappings are often as flimsy as a Yeasayer needle drop or an Ask Jeeves reference, it’s wild to see how much attention was paid to recreating the chunky interface of Apple’s first phone, all the way down to the process of setting a favorite song as a custom ringtone. Harrigan is particularly fond of Tammy Wynette, and the prospect of being able to hear “Stand by Your Man” at will is what ultimately warms him to the iPhone that Craig gives him as a gift one day — that and the ability to get the latest news before it’s printed in the next day’s paper. Tech-illiterate as Harrigan may be, the old man recognizes this handheld spigot of free data as an addictive gateway drug for misinformation.
It stands to reason that King — a terminally online (yet unstoppably prolific) liberal boomer par excellence — would be interested in writing something that framed digital technology as a newfangled monkey’s paw, but this particular story is spectacularly ill-suited at doing that. Sure, it’s strange that Craig buries Mr. Harrigan with his phone, but twice-grieving teen’s compulsion to keep texting with/leaving voicemails for his late friend positions cellular devices as a comforting source of connection rather than a sinister gateway to our worst selves.
Of course, that might 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 neglects to make Craig read). And yet, the next chapter of this cautionary tale — in which Craig begins to suspect that Harrigan’s ghost is responding to his texts by murdering the kid’s enemies from beyond the grave — has even less bearing on reality.
That isn’t to suggest that “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” necessarily had to portend the rise of fake news or serve as a metaphor for the relationship between online grousing and physical violence, but the movie does try to do both of those things — in gallingly half-hearted fashion, and at the direct expense of any intrigue, scares, or suspense. One emblematically riveting scene finds Craig going to a local cell phone store to get his data transferred to a new device in the hope that doing so might sever his unholy connection between this world and the next; who needs “Barbarian” when you can stay home and watch a nice sales clerk explain how a user’s contact lists can be ported between two different phones? It’s about as spooky as an AT&T commercial, and shot with half the energy (for a reliably competent journeyman like Hancock, whose credits range from “The Blind Side” to “The Little Things,” the content-driven nature of streaming gigs can be a monkey’s paw of their own).
It’s also one of the only scenes in the last hour of “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” that are allowed to play out with any semblance of personal urgency, as Craig is never present to witness the consequences of his morally questionable calls for help. If his iPhone distances him from his own actions, it also distances us from caring about them. Or about Craig, and his tossed off aspirations of becoming a screenwriter. The exquisitely dumb narration the character writes for this movie (“I think our phones are how we are wedded to the world… it’s a bad marriage”) would seem to suggest that Mr. Harrigan was right to dissuade Craig from Hollywood, but then again, this movie got made.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, October 5.