by Paul Deeter
The bevy of work by Stephen King has been tapped into endlessly for multiple film, TV and podcast projects. What's so great about King is that some of his projects (like the two versions of It for example) are easy to return to and offer more each time they're made. But what's an even bigger opportunity is the massive amount of not just finished novels but additionally the probably hundreds now short stories he's penned as well. Some could say with the Godzilla-sized length of projects like It or The Stand, movie adaptations of shorts have a slightly easier job of containing a concise story. But where that opportunity comes is also the issue of its purpose. Is a short story like Mr. Harrigan's Phone from the If it Bleeds book, with under 100 pages of content a good idea for a film? Well it would have to rely on the film's quality of story adaptation, and a lot of other factors that help King adaptations stand the test of time. Mr. Harrigan's Phone dropped on Netflix on October 6th, to unfavorable reviews and a middling audience response. The consensus of critics oft-involved the labeling of it as a "coming of age" film, and not one focused on being scary or telling a horror story. For example: On CinemaBlend, Eric Eisenberg gave it a 2/5 rating saying that "its a dull and lagging feature that tries to be both a coming-of-age drama and a supernatural horror film, and it ends up failing to make an emotional impact with either genre." And in another similar review, Common Sense Media, Brian Costello gave it a 4/5 rating saying that "viewers might expect a horror-thriller, but this is more of a coming-of-age story...
My opinion lies in the breadth of the critical consensus; as much as I tried and wanted to like Mr. Harrigan's Phone, I often lost interest and my mind wandered frequently. I try not to have any devices on while I watch a movie, that being with the exception of my laptop as I write a review for the film. But like our protagonists in the film often are, I kept returning to my phone. Frequently I just dipped into reviews of the film, and also checked the runtime (of 104 minutes) asking myself "When does this movie get going?" I recently investigated the director's history because I like to contextualize my reviews with as much background content to understand them as I can. John Lee Hancock directed this feature, after films like 2007's The Blind Side and 2002's The Rookie. I'm honestly not surprised after the fact that this is true. But if I'd known this going in, it would have significantly set me up for the kind of movie this one is.
Hancock is working with a young lead Jaeden Martell who plays Craig, aside a never better Donald Sutherland as Mr. Harrigan. The two have a good report, and after SPOILERS Harrigan passes, setting the movie's very simple story up, he is definitely missed. Outside of Sutherland and Martell, there really isn't a lot of characterization, and for a film that can (kind of) be lauded as a coming-of-age story, there's no other kid characters of relevance outside of a stereotypical school bully. The basic premise surrounds Harrigan's death along with the effects he has on the boy's life both alive and posthumously. Craig reads for Harrigan daily, offering friendship and company to the old man who lives reclusively by himself. As it is the late 2000s (established with a dated solid indie soundtrack) Craig is allured to the newest cellphone technology, and buys himself a smartphone. He eventually convinces Harrigan to have one, using Harrigan's best interests in mind. The two form a bond both in person and out, with the ability to call each other anytime, and their own personalized shared ringtone.
As expected in his old age, Harrigan passes and to the surprise of Craig, leaves $800,000 dollars in his name. But it wouldn't be a King film if it ended there. Craig (for some odd and underexplained reason) slips Harrigan's cell phone into his casket at a service, and starts receiving calls beyond the grave soon after. But these calls don't send messages but receive them and in the events that follow Craig's life becomes unusually protected and altered by cosmic intervention. This would be a good setup for another solid act, but falters shortly after its established. Its extremely predictable the ways Craig's life is changed by Harrigan's powers, and none of the twists work or bear any lasting significance. The film simply meanders from "surprise" death to death, while Craig grows older and more dependent on the phone. There's an interesting element of wish granting that is lightly explored here. But the phone's magic doesn't work until late in the film, and the characters who are effected by its powers don't really matter too much at this point. Sure the bully gets what comes to him, but is that any surprise? Maybe the movie twists a few moments of the universe's influence on Craig's gift here, but nothing is truly explored here.
And just as soon as the movie gets going with the phone, the film ends after a small usage of the powers and some minor suspense involving Craig's life. Does it sound like I'm giving the whole movie away? Because I kind of am. The film just simply doesn't last any surprises or revelations beyond its (eerie?) premise. Its spooky or supernaturally curious at best. It doesn't seem to mind quietly existing, and that would be fine if the film was truly a coming of age picture. But in the end its a whole lot of nothing, simply bored and half-assedly retelling a short story that needed no additional adaptation.