Phone Booth
review by Dan Lybarger, 4 April 2003

Director Joel Schumacher's movies are a lot more fun when he's thinking small. When he has a gargantuan budget like he did in the unbearable Batman & Robin, his hyperactive visuals would seem like an annoying distraction if it weren't for the fact that there was no content to back them up. His Batman movies are terrible popcorn fare because the humans involved get lost in the gimmicks, making even the coolest of special effects dull.

Somehow when he's got a smaller canvas, a better script, Matthew Libatique's dazzling cinematography and Irish star Colin Farrell (The Recruit), Schumacher's films improve exponentially. His latest was shot in a mere twelve days and seems all the better because of its modesty. Phone Booth could be, with some fairness, dismissed as a stylistic exercise. Thankfully, its quick pace and engaging performances make it far more involving than simple experimentation. In fact, for once, Schumacher's acrobatic camerawork and wild-looking editing provide a nice complement to a static location.

Phone Booth takes place in a cramped New York City block that's a little unsettling even though cell phones outnumber guns there. Using the former, publicist Stu Shepard (Farrell) can do more damage than most folks can with a bazooka. As he paces through the streets, his gift of gab and skill with a bluff can turn idle boasting into concrete results. His cocky manner upsets some of the journalists he schmoozes, and he can even play on that dislike to hoodwink them into plugging his acts.

His talents are put to the test when he steps into his favorite phone booth (the only one left in Manhattan) one time too many. Afraid his wife (Radha Mitchell, Pitch Black) might spot his cell phone calls to his mistress (Katie Holmes) on the bills, Stu discovers that someone has been monitoring his visits to the booth and wants to teach him a deadly lesson. When someone rings his booth, Stu answers, and a menacing voice (belonging to a mesmerizing, assured Kiefer Sutherland) on the other end of the line informs the silver-tongued publicist that if he doesn't do as instructed, the caller will use him for target practice with his high-powered rifle.

A couple of convincing warning shots convince Stu the caller is demented enough to support his threat. Worse, Stu's proximity to the recent bullet holes earns the attention of the cops, especially one Capt. Ramey (Whitaker), and the neighborhood quickly descends into a long standoff with the police thinking that Stu is the one who fired the shots.

The script by B-movie veteran Larry Cohen (Maniac Cop, It's Alive! and Black Caesar) makes the most out of the claustrophobic situation. The unseen sniper is especially menacing because he ranges from being gleeful sadist to being an eerie type of avenging angel. Because we're really not sure if the caller is merely toying with Stu or is on some kind of perverse moral crusade, he seems even scarier. He has all of Stu's weaknesses pegged and is immune to the publicist's considerable charm. He also has a creepy sense of humor. When a negotiator tries to talk Stu out of the booth by exposing his own personal foibles, Sutherland snaps, "Let's get this guy a seat on Oprah." But this is more than even Oprah herself could take.

The fact that the sniper is invisible gives less comfort. Schumacher's decision not to muffle Sutherland's voice with a "telephonish" sound is another plus because it makes his ominous pronouncements more immediate, and allows more of the sick glee from the actor's tone to come through.

What's occasionally refreshing about Phone Booth is that the cops who stumble on the stand off aren't stupid. In a lot of alleged thrillers I've had to sit through lately (like Abandon), the police are behind the audience by light years. As the captain in charge of the standoff, Forest Whitaker plays a fellow who can read between the lines well enough to tell that Stu is not in a typical hostage dilemma.

As the fellow who's literally under the gun, Farrell plays both the slickly successful huckster and the coerced repentant with equal finesse. Despite Stu's earlier infractions and appalling mendacity, his plight is involving enough to keep the film going.

Like Schumacher's last movie Bad Company, Phone Booth was delayed because its storyline was too similar to recent headlines. The former film about an attempted attack on New York City was postponed because of 9-11, and Phone Booth seemed inappropriate in the wake of the DC sniper attacks. Despite Schumacher's regrettable decision to begin and end his new movie with a shot of a communications satellite hovering over the Earth (does he have a quota for special effects to use?), Phone Booth is actually worth the wait.

Directed by:
Joel Schumacher

Starring:
Colin Farrell
Kiefer Sutherland
Forest Whitaker
Radha Mitchell
Katie Holmes

Written by:
Larry Cohen

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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