Phone Booth

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

PHONE BOOTH

5/10

USA 2003 (filmed 2000, completed 2002) : Joel SCHUMACHER : 80 mins

Colin Farrell is all of a sudden everywhere you look at the moment (The Recruit, DareDevil), and he’s barely off screen during this watchable, refreshingly short – but thoroughly implausible and forgettable – little thriller. He’s Stu, an amoral Manhattan PR-shyster who spends an anguished hour in a phone booth being taunted by an unseen, snidey-voiced sniper-psycho (Kiefer Sutherland in sub-John Malkovich mode). If Stu hangs up, he’ll be shot – and when the booth is rapidly surrounded by trigger-happy cops and camera-toting news-hounds, a claustrophobic Dog Day Afternoon-type scenario develops (current Brazilian documentary Bus 174 is the latest variation on the theme).

While the basic idea is promising – and Farrell (complete with unsuitably floppy hair) convincingly sweats his bollix off – director Schumacher is way out of his depth, resorting to hyperactive visuals (including countless Mike Figgis-ish screens-within-screens) that constantly torpedo whatever tension ever existed in B-movie legend Larry Cohen’s script. Having originally pitched the idea as a directorial challenge to none other than Alfred Hitchcock back in the late seventies – presumably inspired by the master’s 1940s ‘one location’ gimmick movies Lifeboat and Rope – Cohen wrote the first draft around the same time as his more spectacular terror-in-Manhattan opus, the unashamedly loopy Q – The Winged Serpent (1982) (presumably Stu was initially more of a Reaganite Wall Street-ish yuppie-in-torment than the Sweet Smell of Success-ish slimeball we see here.)

The screenplay then kicked around Hollywood for a couple of decades, with Jim Carrey at one point firmly lined up to play the hapless Stu. By the time Schumacher spotted it – and realised that such a one-man vehicle would be an ideal component in his master-plan to make a star out of Farrell (a plan whose first stage was Tigerland) – the whole ‘phone booth’ idea was suddenly very dated. Hence the awkward introduction, in which an unseen narrator explains how mobile phones are now the standard means of communication, but that there just so happens to be this one phone booth left in Manhattan, and today is its last day of service.

This turns out to be superfluous exposition – the phone booth’s imminent removal is really neither here nor there – but the film-makers presumably realised that they didn’t have enough material for a proper-length feature, so had to pad things out as best they could (the 80-minute running time includes 5 minutes of credits). This presumably explains the laborious subplot involving Stu coming clean to his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) about Pamela (Katie Holmes) – though it’s disappointing that Pamela is quickly forgotten about at the climax.

This sloppiness is typical of the film as a whole: what could have been a tense, real-time nail-biter dissipates as Schumacher drops the ball by repeatedly cutting away from Stu – ahem – stewing in his phone-booth to shots of Kelly and Pamela (who, oddly, never actually meet), and of the cops trying to trace the call, led by the empathetic Captain Ramey (Forrest Whitaker). Whereas the screen-in-screen trick could and should have been used to keep Stu on screen for the full duration.

Whitaker’s bulky presence, meanwhile, can’t help but stir memories of another recent Manhattan thriller named after its key claustrophobic environment – David Fincher’s vastly superior Panic Room. While that (technically brilliant) movie gained in resonance and depth after viewing – and cleverly played on the irony that us lot in the cinema audience are also (voluntarily) stuck in a particular environment for a particular length of time – there isn’t really anything to Schumacher’s effort. Despite the gimmicks, this is just yet another psycho-taunts-bloke picture: moderately engaging from scene to scene, but ultimately something of a frustrating crossed line.

18th April, 2003
(seen same day, UGC Boldon)

by Neil Young