Archive for Thursday, April 3, 2003

Phone Booth’ makes the right call

R **1/2

April 3, 2003

And you thought those calls asking residents to switch from AT&T to
Sprint were annoying.

How about having a sniper ring you at a public phone booth and
explain that he'll pull the trigger if you hang up?

That's what happens to Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a hotshot
celebrity publicist who's made a career from "the sin of spin." As
part of his daily stroll down the streets of Manhattan, Stu stops by
a phone booth at 53rd and Eighth Ave. He takes off his wedding ring,
calls a fresh-faced ingenue he is representing (Katie Holmes) and
tries to talk her into a rendezvous.

But when Stu next picks up the phone, it is a sniper's voice he
hears. The Caller (Kiefer Sutherland) begins playing mind games with
the stranded publicist. Before long, Stu is having a dog day
afternoon, trapped in a phone booth surrounded by police and media
who believe HE'S the gunman.

It's always entertaining to watch a film that is an experiment in
environment. As soon as its central conflict is put in motion, "Phone
Booth" plays out as a tidy little thriller.

With more than 50 filmed scripts to his credit, veteran screenwriter
Larry Cohen has learned that economy of ideas is crucial. Cohen's
latest is so austerely focused that it could operate as a stage play.
(In fact, it's based on a 1996 NYU student film called "End of the
Line.") This is a script where dialogue is everything.

The bantering between Stu and The Caller is quite clever, as both men
jockey for position within an ever-changing situation. Cohen's best
gambit is how he sets up the reason why the police (led by Forest
Whitaker) are legally unable to listen in on the conversation. Only
sporadically does this streamlined effort get bogged down with
extraneous plots (why make Whitaker's fellow negotiator antagonistic
of him?) and lame characters (an Eminem knockoff who is a client of
Stu's).

However, uber-commerical filmmaker Joel Schumacher ("Bad Company")
does everything in his power to try and clutter the simple storyline
with visual bells and whistles. Schumacher seems so enamored with the
cinematic options available in the digital age that he tries to
force-feed them all into one movie.

The picture's intro is emblematic of the director's latest fetish. It
features a special effects sequence that opens on a communications
satellite then plummets straight down to the Earth, growing smaller
until it's observing the micro-workings of cellular technology.
Joel, this ain't "The Core." It's a thriller.

He follows this up with every modern means of enhancing images:
bullet time, extreme fast motion into slow motion, exaggerated
close-ups. Over this booms a narration about phone usage in New York.
You begin to think you're watching a slick commercial for Verizon
until the profanities start bombarding the screen.

Fortunately, all the clatter doesn't spoil the easy-to-get-wrapped-up-in plot.

Irish bad boy Farrell seems comfortable in the lead role, even when
tackling a Bronx accent. More importantly, he consistently glides
from smarmy to sympathetic. His fast-talking character could have
been cartoonish - you don't want to see Superman in that booth - if
Farrell hadn't found a way to bring the man's innate vulnerability to
the surface.

The audience may not like Stu, but they can always relate to him.
They certainly are never on the side of the killer, even if he does
get most of the good lines. (When taunting Stu with the prospect of
firing on his actress friend, The Caller says, "I think she can use a
new head shot.")

As with most Hollywood offerings, the movie's ending lacks the
dramatic knock-out the audience craves after investing in such a
harrowing scenario. It's like an unfinished cellular phone
conversation that slowly drifts into static: unsatisfying but too
commonplace to get upset about.

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