“Mr. Harrington’s Phone” is a Stephen King adaptation that’s more fun for King fans to deconstruct and psychoanalyze than to experience as a movie.
The tale is in expert filmmaking hands, and “Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks” writer-director John Lee Hancock renders a kind of bookish, old fashioned comfort food version of a mildly spooky and seriously derivative story. But it is noting all the King obsessions, personal history and soap boxes within it than make it worth watching.
It’s a story with bits of autobiography about it, an appreciation of great literature, the hominess and gloom of King’s beloved small town Maine, a testy prophecy about the great distraction of modern life — cell phones — with a distracted driver who gets his just deserts only to have someone he wronged realize, as a Robert Palmer song once taught us, “that revenge does not taste sweet.”
In it, a child (Colon O’Brien) shines when called upon to read in church, which gets the notice of a rich old man (Donald Sutherland) in the small town congregation. The kid’s newly-widowed father (Joe Tippett) agrees to let the boy come to Mr. Harrington’s Victorian mansion to read to him.
Years pass and the boy reaches his teens. Craig (Jaeden Martell of “It” and “St. Vincent”) has had quite the education, just reading Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair and Dostoyevsky and D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to Harrington, who often finishes such sessions by asking the boy what he got out of the book.
The kid, in turns, asks questions about Harrington’s solitary life, his life in finance and his “secrets.” Harrington passes on advice Thoreau gave, which he hasn’t really followed himself — “We don’t own things. They own us.”
Which is why he’s leery of accepting the gift of this new gadget, an iPhone, when the kid comes into some money thanks to Harrington’s largesse. Harrington has just enough time to get iPhone addicted, and inveigh against the addiction and all that the “free information” the online future portends, and to urge Craig to “dispatch enemies with haste” in whatever endeavor the aspiring teen screenwriter decides to pursue, before he dies.
He was old. He saw it coming, as did we. And the fact that the country music-loving millionaire got Craig to use “Stand By Your Man” as their ring-tone “handle” so that the kid knows he’s calling is something we can see from several miles off, as well.
This is a “phone calls from the dead” story. And that Tammy Wynette tune promises to be perfectly creepy when it signals a call from the grave.
Phone calls from the afterlife is a common horror trope, most of them owing a lot to a classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “Long Distance Call.” King’s son, Joe Hill, got a supernatural hit out of one variation on that theme, “Black Phone.” King has the wisdom to play that down and use the cell phone as a metaphor for life’s greatest time-suck, warnings about the data harvesting and radiation threats they represent and how facts and “information” you’re getting “free” has a high cost.
The horror movie in all this, Craig’s “enemies” dying off, is pretty drab stuff.
The high school scenes are so overfamiliar as to lapse into trite. The foreshadowing, as befits a short story, where economy of words is at a premium, is obvious. And the frights? Not remotely frightening or suspenseful.
What King wrote was a homey jeremiad masquerading as a horror tale. What Hancock got from that was a horror movie as edgy, scary and challenging as a bowl of New England chowder in a winter’s day — horror comfort food.
Rating: PG-13, violence, profanity
Cast: Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold and Donald Sutherland
Credits. Scripted and directed by John Lee Hancock, based on a Stephen King short story. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:44