Phone Booth (2002) / Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language and some violence
Running Time: 81 min.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes, Ben Foster
Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Review published April 6, 2003
Phone Booth is B-movie theatrics given A-movie treatment. If this were an independent short film, like the student film where this reportedly draws its inspiration, End of the Line, it would be a terrific idea, at least in theory. As a full-fledged, major motion picture release, the bar is raised much higher, as they have to not only set the whole film around one central location, but also make all of the motivations and actions plausible.
Colin Farrell (Minority Report, Hart's War) gets the choice role of the New York publicist who cares more about being the big-shot himself than in any of the people he represents. He usually uses his position just to get aspiring fame-seekers to run menial errands for him, in the hopes he'll spark their career. He's a bit self-absorbed, and has been flirting with having an affair with another woman, using his position as the bait. Every day he makes a phone call in a local phone booth (so as not to charge it to his cell phone for his wife (Mitchell, Pitch Black) to see) to his potential mistress (Holmes, Wonder Boys), but something strange happens on this day. A sniper (Sutherland, A Few Good Men) forces the man to stay on the line with him, while subjecting him to potential danger and humiliation, because he disagrees with the kind of life he leads.
First off, I have to commend director Schumacher (Bad Company, 8MM) for making what could have been a very corny experiment into a very riveting film. The look and feel of the imagery hearkens back to the gritty crime thrillers of the Seventies, and the parallel frame-work in particular is perfectly handled, reminiscent of Brian De Palma's technique when at his peak. The environment feels authentic, as do the inhabitants of the New York street where the phone booth resides, and there's some quality acting by Farrell (although his "New Yawk" accent isn't as authentic as it could be) and Whitaker in a supporting role as the cop who tries to keep the situation from escalating into another person dying.
As intense as the film is for the duration, the implausibility factor creeps in early, and becomes increasingly difficult to swallow as the tension reaches fever-pitch. Granted, the film's main plot already begs for belief to be suspended in and of itself, but once we are able to go along with it for entertainment's sake, Larry Cohen's (Cellular, Body Snatchers) rather weak script starts asking for more, until it becomes laughably dumb for the rest of the way.
I would say Phone Booth is at least worth a look due to being an interesting idea for thriller, as well as for its attention-grabbing style which works magic on a purely visceral level, much in the way it did in the similarly implausible film, Joy Ride. In the right hands, this had the potential to become a classic, if only the premise weren't buried under layer upon layer of BS and a cheesy formulaic ending.
©2003 Vince Leo