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Phone Booth (A Movie Review)


Starring Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes, Paula Jai Parker, Arian Ash, Tia Texada, John Enos III, Richard T. Jones, Keith Nobbs, Dell Yount, James MacDonald, Josh Pais, Yorgo Constantine and Colin Patrick Lynch.

Screenplay by Larry Cohen.

Directed by Joel Schumacher.

Distributed by Fox 2000 Pictures. 80 minutes. Rated R.

Phone Booth has a problem with bad timing. It is a pretty suspenseful look at a fast-talking publicist who is trapped in a phone booth by a mysterious sniper who knows all about his life. This film was due to be released last year, but it was shelved when the real life snipers were terrorizing Maryland and Virginia. Well, apparently it has been deemed long enough to slip Phone Booth into the multiplexes. Still, the specter of real life does loom over the proceedings. It’s a shame because there is an interesting premise.

Colin Farrell is terrific as Stu, a self-absorbed publicist, a huckster in a Brooks Brothers suit and a stylish cranberry shirt. Stu is trying to bebop his way through life, using anyone he can, dismissing anyone he can’t use. He is self-involved, somewhat immoral, and desperate for approval. He stops in what we are told is the last phone booth left in Manhattan to call a cute young ingénue (Katie Holmes) that he is thinking of cheating on his wife with.

When nothing comes of his attempt, he starts to leave, but the pay phone rings. He actually picks it up (the script says that no one can walk past a ringing phone even if they know it’s not for them, but I’ve always found the exact opposite to be the case…) and is confronted by a mysterious voice that knows all about him, and says that he will be killed if he hangs up the phone or leaves the booth. To prove he is serious, he kills a strip club bouncer.

Now Stu is put in the position of being surrounded by cops who believe he is a killer and being unable to tell them what is really happening. A Dog Day Afternoon type of media circus explodes outside the phone booth. This is a grabbing set-up. The film certainly never drags… then again it would be hard to drag in a film that is an astonishingly brief 80 minutes long.

The film’s setting actually works toward sabotaging the film, though. After starting out with some vibrantly lifelike scenes of New York’s Times Square, which bustle with energy, the block where most of the film’s action takes place is just too obviously a Hollywood back lot, losing the vitality, the funkiness, the sense of life that exploded in the first scenes. Now, I know the logistics of filming an entire film in the middle of a street in Midtown would make it impossible, but that doesn’t change the fact that the film has lost the pulse of the city.

In fact, the movie seems a little unknowledgeable about New York City in general, or at least it hopes the audience will be. For example, the early scenes show Farrell walking south and east on 44th and Broadway in real time. So how did he end up in a phone booth that the narrator tells us is at 53rd Street and 8th Avenue, over ten blocks in the opposite direction from where he was heading?

But geography questions aren’t this film’s real problem. It is a simple storyline flaw. In the end, the audience can’t overcome the very basic question… Why is the sniper doing this? What has Farrell really done to deserve this kind of mental and physical torture? The excuses the shooter gives just don’t float. Stu is a publicist who lies to further his clients’ careers? I’m sorry, but hasn’t the sniper ever met a publicist? Is it because Stu is rude to people who can’t help him? Okay, fine, don’t invite him to a dinner party, but I think this is a little extreme. Is it because he’s considering having an affair? How does that affect the sniper in any way?

You keep expecting for there to be more, a final shoe will fall that will explain why this man has been chosen for such a trial by fire, but it never comes. Without that payoff, it becomes a bit of a cynical screenwriter’s trick. All of the suspense that was built up seems a bit of a cheap tease. (4/03)

Alex Diamond

Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved. Posted: April 6, 2003.


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