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April 21, 2003

Phone Booth

Would that this film had been made back in the Hitchcock days, as it might have been. I’d had a slight interest in this movie back when it’s release was delayed by the Beltway Sniper, but my real motivation for seeing another Joel Schumacher picture in the theater was an article written by screenwriter Larry Cohen that appeared in a recent issue of Scr(i)pt magazine. These sorts of conceptual thrillers wherein somewhat ordinary folks get stuck in a phenomenal situation, and usually an associated location, are a candy I can’t get enough of. I think it’s the combination of a stage-like environment for the actors and the restrictions such environments place on a film director that attract me to these pictures; restrictions promote creativity, they say. Beyond that, the ordinary folks give us, the audience, and the actors terrific footholds on the thriller situation, which should be extraordinary and is very often ridiculous. Among my favorites in this category is David Fincher’s Panic Room, which is just a selection of interesting characters and locations placed together under pressure.

Phone Booth strays a bit from the simplicity of its situation, which is a mistake I’ll blame on Schumacher, because I’m still holding a grudge from the Batman movies, I guess. To be honest, Schumacher does wonderful things in this film, but his satellite bookends are overblown and self-important. The weight and meaning of a man trapped in a phone booth by a sniper is best left to the audience, I think. Besides the film’s opening and closing sentiments, I think there’s one other major problem: the voice of the sniper. Kiefer Sutherland’s voice is too recognizeable, though perhaps it wouldn’t have been if the film had come out before his hit television series 24 had taken off, and the outright villainy of his performance goes against the earthly frailty that the story emphasizes. Worse, Sutherland’s voice is given to us without telephonic static or variations in volume. Yes, it’s godlike, we get it. How fascinating would it have been if we’d been trying to learn something about this person on the other end of the phone, if we’d felt we missed some key word or sentence spoken while the phone was away from our ear? If the sniper had been more human, he’d have been more mysterious. Otherwise, we just conclude that he is a malicious psychopath. Unfortunately, we do and, unfortunately, he is.

What is good about Phone Booth is pretty darn entertaining, though. Forest Whitaker is terrific, as usual. Colin Farrell is good in the way that’s most necessary in this film, which is to say he’s easy and exciting to watch for the whole film. Radha Mitchell does great, convincing work in the role of the wife, which is thankfully not shrill, stupid or helpless. Special appreciation must be paid to the talents of the crew, including Schumacher, who turned a stretch of Los Angeles into New York. The tricks they play to convince us that we’re off Times Square work flawlessly, though I am from Chicago so what do I know about LA or New York?

Happily, Phone Booth is the movie it’s advertised as, so it’s pretty easy to recommend it; you know what you’re getting. It’s a fine 90 minutes of entertainment, but it’s not the heart-pumping, edge-of-your-seat nailbiter that I’d been hoping for. For that, I’ll put in my DVD of Panic Room.

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