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Phone Booth   B-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Larry Cohen
Cast: Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes, Kiefer Sutherland.

Review by Rob Vaux

And here we have Joel Schumacher in his native environment at last. Stripped of skyrocketing budgets, art-house pretensions, and the notion of doing anything remotely important, his filmmaking finds fertile ground in the soft, earthy goodness of pseudo-exploitation. He's a pulp virtuoso, a master of engaging hackfests that in a just world would appear only on the second reel of your local drive-in. This is his niche, and frankly, he's good at it. A project like Phone Booth should be on his docket more often. For all its high-profile exposure, it's basically a gimmicky throwaway with only a hot star to separate it from direct-to-cable obscurity. That's not necessarily a criticism. Hitchcock did more with even flimsier material, and while Phone Booth isn't nearly in his league, it stays above water long enough to deliver a modestly effective thriller.

In fact, Hitchcock supposedly served as the inspiration for the screenplay, following a conversation he had with writer Larry Cohen (director of such classic B-movie fare as God Told Me To, and It's Alive). With a brief nod to updated circumstances (there's not many examples of the title object out there these days), it dispenses with all unnecessary exposition and gets straight to the point. Every day at the same time, New York publicity sleaze Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) uses a phone booth off of Times Square to call his would-be mistress (Katie Holmes). The reason? His wife (Radha Mitchell) checks his cell phone bill, and the booth leaves no evidence of his conversations. But someone else has been paying attention, and one day, right after Stu says goodbye to his hot young thang, that someone calls back. He has the voice of Kiefer Sutherland, a nasty sense of moral certainty, and a high-powered sniper rifle aimed right at Stu's heart. He wants to make the smug little bastard sweat a little, and has all the tools to make sure it's done right.

Though a scant 84 minutes long (set, apparently, in real time) the scenario takes a fair amount of skill to function properly. We just have Stu in the box with an unseen threat looming over him; to keep that fresh for even an hour requires someone with a keen skill at stimulus response. Phone Booth knows how to jerk our collective chain at just the right moments, and Schumacher is crudely efficient enough to let us feel Stu's anxiety at every turn. It's a good thing too, because Shepard is as passive a protagonist as you'll ever see. Phone Booth isn't concerned with watching him think his way out of his predicament -- he has no real strengths upon which to draw -- but rather with locking him in the box and letting him squirm. It rides on a voyeuristic charge of guilt and absolution, letting us play judge while the sneering jerk on the screen has his protective layers slowly and thoroughly stripped away. Sutherland's vocal performance is essential in this regard. Farrell can hold our attention, but with that intimidating staccato barking at us from the other end of the line, you could put anybody in that booth and make the film work. By the end, Stu's a whimpering wreck and so are we; a testament both to Sutherland's presence and Phone Booth's visceral strengths.

Of course, the deeper one gets into the subtext, the more troublesome it all appears. The whiff of hypocrisy lingers on every frame, and the simplistic Catholic analogies are inescapable, with the phone booth serving as transparent confessional and Sutherland as the voice of God (the soundtrack even reverberates his dialogue to make it appear omnipresent). Its rigid view of guilt often leaves a bad taste in the mouth, as does the ease with which it slips into preachy high-handedness. Phone Booth always points the cannon at its characters, not at us, but you get the feeling that they wouldn't dare make such commentary if their protagonist weren't such a turd. In that sense, they're not alone; ham-handed moralizing is a natural standby for exploitation cinema. Rather than deter us, it only confirms Phone Booth's brazenly tacky pedigree, and lets us enjoy the guilty pleasures without a second thought. One hopes that the filmmakers aren't taking it too seriously. This is tasty trash, and I'd hate to think that the people who brought it to us are missing out on all the fun.

Review published 04.06.2003.

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