Rated R - Running Time: 1:21 - Released 4/4/03

You know, I have to give Joel Schumacher, Larry Cohen, and the producers of Phone Booth credit for trying something different. It may be stupid, but at least it’s different. Set almost entirely on a Manhattan street corner and shot almost entirely in real time, this movie is full of Schumacher’s slick, innovative directing techniques, and features excellent work by fast-rising actor Colin Farrell, who continues his emergence as the newest household name in Hollywood. I’d love to love this film. But Cohen’s script is just so full of holes, it’s impossible.

Farrell plays New York publicist Stu Shepard, who thinks he’s God’s gift to everyone. Walking around Times Square followed by his lap-dog assistant (Keith Nobbs), who really does most of the work, he makes calls from his cell phone and lies to one client after another, promises things he cannot deliver, tells people what they want to hear for the purpose of furthering his own agendas, and tries to cheat on his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) with a comely young actress named Pam (Katie Holmes), who has succeeded so far (with some difficulty) in keeping him at arm’s length. But one day when he’s just finished calling Pam from his favorite phone booth on the corner of 53rd & 8th streets, the phone rings and he picks it up. On the other end is the calm voice of a stranger (Kiefer Sutherland) who seems to have some grudge against him. Before Stu can hang up, the anonymous caller tells him he’s watching from a high window in one of the surrounding buildings, he’s fed up with Stu’s selfish behavior, and he’s got him in the sights of his high-powered rifle. To prove he’s not kidding around, he shoots a bystander (which not only attracts police attention but also makes it look like Stu is the perpetrator), and proceeds to threaten, annoy, and terrorize Stu for the remainder of the film.

This could be a very clever premise, and Farrell and Schumacher do their absolute best to make it considerably effective despite the overriding lack of credibility inherent in the concept. Farrell, inhabiting center screen for nearly every second of the movie, sweats, bleeds, pleads, staggers, swaggers, bluffs, and cries his way through an hour and change, forcing us to live through it with him, and director Schumacher captures and keeps our attention with quick editing, interesting angles and fisheye lenses, split screens, and picture-in-picture composition that allows us to witness two, three, or even four things at once, all happening simultaneously. These techniques become even more ingenious once the police have the phone booth surrounded, and the lead negotiator (Forest Whitaker) is attempting to talk to Stu while he is still on the phone, and Kelly shows up, and Pam shows up, and everybody thinks he’s the one who killed the guy sprawled out on the street. Why would this man refuse to hang up the phone when ordered to do so at gunpoint? I mean, even a call from Britney couldn’t be that important.

But I think it’s that moment, when Whitaker arrives, that the story loses its last vestige of credibility. Even dismissing the fact that Stu could have hung up and run after the first 2 minutes and probably avoided being shot, there are just too many things we have to swallow to make this idea work. It would be so easy, on so many occasions, for him to communicate what is going on to the cops. It should be so easy for them to figure it out for themselves after a few minutes. I don’t care how well the shooter can see him through his sniper scope; Stu has a hundred opportunities to escape or to communicate through gestures, sign language, body English, whatever, but he’s forced to stand there simply because Cohen’s script tells him to. What’s more, the killer’s motives are self-contradictory. He says he’s trying to get Stu to finally tell the truth to everyone he’s deceived, but he forces him to lie to the cops and emits satisfied chuckles when they are faked out. He says he wants to vindicate Kelly and Pam, but then he threatens to shoot them too. He actually utters the line, “You are guilty of inhumanity toward your fellow man”—after he’s killed an innocent bystander!

Of course the argument could be made that this is just a crazy psycho madman who can’t be reasoned with, but that’s not the way he’s being portrayed. The words he uses, the way Sutherland reads his lines, and the way Schumacher makes him sound, it’s clear he’s supposed to be one of these genius killers, smarter than anyone in his vicinity, charming, well-bred, and diabolical to the last, like Hannibal Lecter. But Hannibal would never hatch such a sloppy scheme, and he would never be allowed to perpetrate it for so long. And that brings me to my final complaint: the dumb cop syndrome. This is another one of those clichéd stories where the killer is smart and the cops are stupid. While Sutherland is laughing maniacally and watching from his dark window, Whitaker is standing there with a confused look on his face, unable to put the pieces together, and all the numerous officers, negotiators, and bystanders continue to labor under the wrong impression despite an abundance of confounding evidence. Farrell’s behavior is that of a desperate man pleading for his life; if we can see that, then those around him would be able to see that too. If we’re supposed to accept that they all think he’s the killer, then he and Schumacher and Cohen should have altered his behavior to reflect that.

As I said, this movie is different, and that wins points in my book. Director Schumacher, admired for Falling Down, reviled for Batman & Robin, and admired again for Tigerland (which starred Colin Farrell), employs his subtle talent and his incredible eye for composition to the utmost, giving the film an artistic presentation which makes a big difference in how fun it is to sit through. Even Cohen’s script is clever and inventive in its simplicity, an old-fashioned static thriller that dispenses with car chases and fiery explosions for simple sweaty tension. But probably the most important element of any effective thriller is believability of the premise—and I’m afraid on that score Cohen just didn’t make all the right calls. ***½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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