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Phone Booth By Matt Singer
Larry Cohen, the writer of Phone Booth, must hate publicists. With an extensive filmography in low budget B-movies (he’s directed such classics as It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive), there must have been some point where Cohen felt slighted by a publicist, who screwed his shot at the big time. This movie is his revenge, as Colin Farrell plays Stu, the trapped publicist whose life depends on his confessing his sins and admitting his faults.
The film opens with Stu in his element, working two cell phones as he walks through Times Square with his assistant, Adam (Keith Nobbs). He makes his way to a phone booth, the last one left in New York City (as we’ve been conveniently told in the film’s prologue) to call Pam (Katie Holmes), a client who he’s trying to get in the sack. Stu also happens to be married, but he takes his ring off when talking to Pam, so ethically, he’s A.O.K. As he’s leaving, the phone in the booth rings, and Stu foolishly answers it. The fiendish yet suave voice on the other end (Well-voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, who replaced original Caller Ron Eldard in post-production) tells him if he hangs up or walks out of the booth, or does basically anything else, he will kill him with his sniper rifle.
The setup is an excuse for an exercise in suspense, eighty minutes of a man trapped in a phone booth. Cohen says the story itself originated from discussions with Hitchcock, who loved finding suspense in the strangest places (and who put his heroine in The Birds in a phone booth briefly, but memorably). Cohen finally came up with an angle to make it work (the sniper forcing the protagonist to stay in the booth), but he took so long - and the movie was delayed so many times - he has to explain why there’s still a phone booth in Manhattan (note that the booth reads “Bell Atlantic” while every other pay phone in the movie reads “Verizon,” the company that replaced it).
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Joel Schumacher would not have been my choice to direct this movie but he, along with his very talented cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem For a Dream), filmed the movie for maximum suspense, and did a surprisingly effective job of keeping a tiny movie from feeling small. Footage shot on film is mixed with some shot on digital, and lots of and lots of cuts keep things moving. The tension is sustained relatively well throughout, but the best bits come in the beginning, when Stu has to talk to the sniper, fend off angry hookers and street vendors, and a man with a baseball bat without leaving the safety of the phone booth. In these scenes, my heart was really racing.
The cops, led by Forrest Whitaker, eventually arrive, and the conflict comes to a head, but not before a few logic holes and a trick ending that doesn’t completely satisfy. But to a degree, the ending is irrelevant; the film is about sustaining suspense, not releasing it. Farrell, in his seventeenth movie this year, gives a much better performance (along with a more convincing American accent) than The Recruit, coming a little closer to solidifying his leading man status. Sutherland, in a role that is almost entirely heard, really earns his paycheck. The rest of the cast has little to do - for the life of me, I can’t understand why Katie Holmes took this tiny role unless she had a lot of additional scenes cut from the theatrical release .
There is an attempt to make some grand moral statements in the film, but given the actions of its “hero” and “villain” (not to mention that weird ending), I had a hard time figuring out what, if anything this film is trying to say. But really, do you care? You want to go see Farrell think his way out of the phone booth, and in that department, the film delivers as a creepy and intense thriller. But does he make it out? Well he - oh, please hold.