Phone Booth

phonebooth-movie-review3I happened to see Phone Booth on Roger Corman’s 77th birthday, and chances are that the old B-movie skinflint would heartily approve of the movie. Corman, of course, is the guy who shot an entire film — Little Shop of Horrors — in just over two days; the director of Phone Booth, Joel Schumacher, brought his movie home in ten days and brings it in at a snappy 81 minutes. I doubt Corman would’ve spent as much money on extras playing cops (he would’ve had about twelve cops, and hired Dick Miller to play eight of them), but we can’t have everything.

File the following under Things I Never Dreamed I’d Say: I had a fine time with this movie directed by Joel Schumacher. This formerly glitz-addicted and hype-addled filmmaker (the two worst Batman movies, A Time to Kill, etc.) has been gesturing towards smaller, grittier fare of late; 8mm (1999) repulsed me so much I skipped his next two, Tigerland and Flawless, which seemed like honest enough attempts at something different, though Schumacher had to go and make Bad Company to prove to the studios that he still had a knack for big stupidness. Phone Booth is a Joel Schumacher movie for those who don’t like Joel Schumacher movies. It’s no classic, and any ten directors in thriller-movie history could’ve tightened the screws more elegantly and maliciously, but Schumacher at least tells the story fast and hard. He serves the story.

And that story — by Larry Cohen, veteran of many gimmicky yet amusing B-movie scripts (It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q) — is essentially one long conversation (it could easily be adapted to the stage). Suave New York publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is trapped in a city phone booth by a moralizing sniper (Kiefer Sutherland, sounding richly entertained throughout) who wants Stu to fess up to his various crimes of dishonesty. Stu, married to comely shop owner Kelly (Radha Mitchell), has been pursuing a flirtation with aspiring actress Pam (Katie Holmes), calling her every day from this very phone booth. The phone rings, Stu picks up, and the game begins.

Soon, someone is shot, Stu is blamed, the cops (led by Forest Whitaker in the Die Hard role of the rotund, sensible black officer on whose intelligence the hero’s life rests) get involved, and Stu, commanded by the sniper not to leave the booth or spill the beans, is caught in a standoff. Like Dennis Hopper in Speed, the psycho in Phone Booth has thought of everything. He doesn’t just want to kill Stu; he wants to force Stu, in a kind of brute intervention, to lay bare his soul and strip away the layers of lies that insulate him. After a while, Stu is sort of wishing the psycho would just kill him.

Schumacher discovered Colin Farrell on Tigerland, and he places this movie fully in Farrell’s care. Farrell has been groomed as the next big thing, but he doesn’t really need grooming, and Schumacher knows it; Stu’s connection to the audience grows stronger the grubbier and more desperate he gets. And there’s an added edge to the casting: with most A-list stars, the story would be hampered by the audience’s awareness that nobody could possibly think that, say, Tom Cruise would shoot someone. But what Colin Farrell has to sell is his bad-boy image, his amiable-regular-drinking-guy persona (last seen in the young Mel Gibson) with a pocket of craziness underneath. On television monitors during the standoff, Farrell’s Stu looks like the kind of guy you’d see on live TV coverage. He’s plausible as both a hero and a suspect, a tricky balancing act. If Phone Booth is a hit — surely the first Joel Schumacher film that deserves to score — credit will go less to Schumacher than to the actor whose meltdown he photographs without fuss.

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