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Phone Booth

Joel Schumacher, USA, 2003

Rating: 2.8



Posted: April 5, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Talk about a premise in search of a movie. With this tale of a smarmy New York publicist trapped in a phone booth by a sniper, screenwriter Larry Cohen (the man responsible for such gems as It's Alive, the cult comedy The Stuff and the Maniac Cop series) clearly seeks to emulate the single-setting suspense of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window. But Hitchcock knew enough to flesh out such high-concept ideas with actual story, an essential element that Cohen and director Joel Schumacher (Falling Down, The Client, Batman & Robin) grievously overlook.

Colin Farrell (Daredevil) does a commendable job as Stu Shepard, a fast-talking hustler who enters the same midtown New York phone booth at the same time every day to try to entice one of his clients, sweet-faced aspiring ingénue Pamela (Katie Holmes), into sex at a nearby hotel. Stu's married, you see, and doesn't want to chance his stunningly beautiful wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) questioning all these calls on his cellular phone bill.

So far, so good. Except for the day Shepard chooses to answer the booth's ringing phone seconds after completing his call to Pamela. The caller (Kiefer Sutherland, milking his honeyed-sandpaper rasp for every drop of its calm, insinuating menace) teases Shepard with his knowledge of Stu's daily phone call, his marital status, even the shop where his wife works. Stu hangs up, but he answers the phone again moments later, clearly unsettled by the caller's intimate knowledge of the details of his life and his private thoughts. While this move proves initially frustrating, Farrell sells it superbly: Underneath the scheming bluster of his slick publicist facade, he's a hesitant, insecure man; his curiosity gets the better of him, as does a mixture of self-interest and innate decency. He doesn't want Kelly to find out about the lust in his heart for Pamela, but he also wants to protect her from any contact with the unhinged man on the other end of the line. And so he stays on the phone with this disembodied voice, attempting to finesse him out of revealing Stu's dirty little secret with the same slimy charm with which he regularly bluffs and bullshits magazine editors and clients. And this is before the disembodied voice reveals that he's got a bolt-action rifle, its targeting scope zeroing in on Stu from somewhere directly overhead.

So now we have the set-up. Stu is trapped in the phone booth, pinned in by a sniper with a clear view of his actions, caught in the proverbial deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Things heat up when Stu, having angered the neighborhood streetwalkers with his refusal to leave the booth, incurs the wrath of their pimp; when the pimp smashes the booth's glass walls with a baseball bat and begins beating up on Stu, the sniper kills him, and soon the police arrive, convinced that Stu has a gun with him inside the booth and is a dangerous killer. (This despite the fact that the bullet's angle of entry would seem to exonerate Stu completely, but let's not go messing up the suspense with logic.)

Soon the crazy killer who won't come out of the phone booth is plastered all over TV, and a large crowd gathers -- including Kelly and, eventually, Pamela. Against this backdrop, the sniper continually messes with Stu's head, forcing him to confess his duplicity to Kelly. He also playfully attempts to manipulate Stu into forcing the police to shoot him. All very nerve-wracking, and skillfully spooled out by Schumacher, a lifelong film director known as much for painful Hollywood pabulum (Batman Forever) as for edgy, suspenseful fare like Falling Down.

But it's all a cheat, a shaggy dog story without a cohesive center. (Spoiler Alert: Stop reading right here if you don't want to know how it ends.) The killer, it turns out, has no connection to Stu Shepard at all: He's not some poor wretch Stu wronged earlier in life, or a frustrated potential suitor of Kelly's or Pamela's. He's just a serial killer with a history of picking on guys whose intimate details he happens to overhear, a one-man judge, jury and executioner who targets strangers whose doings disturb his moral compass. This shreds any pretense Phone Booth may have had at being anything other than a one-note gimmick film. Although Stu eventually "confesses" to all of his flaws and foibles, and does so more to set the record straight than to save his own life, we're never given enough about Stu or the people in his life to be emotionally invested in this outcome. So we've got a marginally unsympathetic character we don't get to know, terrorized by a clever psycho into purging his soul and redeeming himself. Well, so what? Since we can't possibly care very deeply for Stu, except to empathize with the sucky situation in which he's stuck, the only possible tether we have left to the film is a sense of story, something to wrap up the loose ends and make everything make sense. It wouldn't have taken an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter very much effort to concoct a relationship between Stu and the sniper, to give the latter an underlying motive, and to give Stu a puzzle to solve, some excuse for active participation in the proceedings. And thus giving us more of a reason to care.

The laziness at the heart of this glaring omission is disappointing, ripping, as it does, any flimsy foundation of emotional involvement out from under us. But it's also disturbing on a larger level, its empty premise symptomatic of Hollywood's increasing lack of emphasis on telling an actual story. Isn't anyone else insulted by the movie industry's incessant belief that all it needs to divorce us from our hard-earned shekels is a juicy gimmick? Isn't anyone else angered, saddened, even disgusted that such flimsy plots are all that most mainstream filmmakers can come up with -- or, worse, are all they think we deserve?

Yes, Virginia, in real life there are idiot killers, like the real-life snipers who terrorized the Washington, D.C. area last year, who strike randomly and with no apparent motive to specifically connect them to their victims. But drama operates under different rules than real life. It's easy to say that Stu's redemption rings true precisely because it comes at the hands of someone he doesn't know, someone designed to stand in for the randomness of fate. That may be true, but it doesn't necessarily make for a better story, especially when that redemption, lacking any real emotional resonance, proves as thin and insubstantial as Kate Moss.

Until its final third, Phone Booth is a likable, perfectly disposable date movie with flashes of real professionalism and even artistry in Farrell's taut, hammy performance, Forest Whitaker's halting turn as an emotionally bruised police captain, even in the proficient, quick-cut cinematography and propulsive, rhythmic soundtrack (and it's those elements that give the film its acceptable rating). But even as a popcorn thriller, it ultimately disappoints, and that inadequacy is only made worse by the nagging certainty that those involved are capable of better, and even worse, that they know we deserve it.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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