Boasting gaudy auspices (including J.J. Abrams), stars (James Franco) and the lure of another Stephen King bestseller, “11.22.63” represents a major breakthrough for Hulu in terms of sheer buzz and scope. Yet the resulting eight-part miniseries is an uneven affair, at times feeling as if it’s meandering through history en route to its frantic closing kick – a “Twilight Zone” episode, stretched and kneaded to wring more out of it, while making up the rules as it goes along. That said, even if the project doesn’t clearly alter Hulu’s history, it certainly sets the streaming service on a more ambitious path.
Like so many time-travel stories, the issue of tinkering with the past to change the present and future is as complicated as it is tantalizing. And in this case, King zeroed in on a big target: John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the date in question, and the escalation of the Vietnam War and other tumultuous events that followed.
The unlikely conduit to affect those outcomes is Jake Epping (Franco), a newly divorced English teacher in (where else?) Maine. In the extended premiere, his pal the local diner owner, Al (Chris Cooper), prods Jake to take a Narnia-like walk into his closet, revealing a time portal that instantly whisks one back to 1960. There, Al has spent years (although mere minutes elapse here) plotting out and planning a way to prevent Kennedy’s death, convinced it will spare the world much of the pain that ensued.
The follow-through for the plan, though, eventually falls to Jake, and comes with an assortment of cryptic warnings and a degree of difficulty worthy of an Olympic dive – including that the timeline doesn’t want to be altered and will push back, in peculiar ways, when it feels in danger of being manipulated. There’s also the potential “butterfly effect,” and whether Jake’s actions could yield an array of unintended consequences.
Adapted by Bridget Carpenter, with the super-sized opening chapter directed by Kevin Macdonald, “11.22.63” is certainly impeccable in terms of its period look (it shot in Canada and Dallas), and impressive in its casting, even if some of the big names, like Cherry Jones, don’t have all that much to do. That said, there’s an irritating quality to the early detours, including Jake’s run-in with gamblers (he finances his scheme by knowing the result of sporting events in advance) and his attempt to see if he can spare an older gent from the horrors inflicted by a brutal, murderous father (Josh Duhamel) in advance of the main event.
Perhaps foremost, Franco isn’t particularly well suited to the central role, coming across as less an Everyman than a chronically pained one, stumbling from one situation to the next. When Jake says to Al, “I just don’t think I’m the right guy for this,” by episode three or four, it’s hard to argue.
On the plus side, there are some fine supporting performances, including Sarah Gadon as the woman who wins Jake’s heart, George MacKay as the youth Jake enlists to help him, and especially Daniel Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald, mastering Oswald’s peculiar speech pattern and growing sense of paranoia – a mental state that Jake, ironically, helps agitate. And for those who don’t know the novel’s payoff, there is a fair amount of tension in the closing two chapters as they count down to the moment, even if those notes probably could have been played a couple hours sooner.
A larger issue, frankly, has to do with adapting King, whose work, with a few notable exceptions (“The Dead Zone,” which contains some similar overtones, comes to mind), tends to be more compelling on the page than on the screen.
By that measure, “11.22.63” (which is being previewed at the Sundance Film Festival) fits pretty neatly within the canon of King’s TV output, streaming or otherwise. And while the project isn’t entirely satisfying, its President’s Day premiere should be a very big date, indeed, when it comes to determining, looking ahead, how much subscribers can ask of Hulu.