From the archives (2003!) Film Review: Phone Booth: Please hang up and try again later

Colin Farrell on phone, in booth, under seige

(Did anybody see Phone Booth? I did!)

by Lauren Pabst

originally printed in the BU Daily Free Press Muse Arts + Entertainment section

In the tradition of one-location suspense films that are inordinately proud of their one location (such as Speed), comes Phone Booth — a movie that manages to create a moderate climate of suspense while operating entirely within the confines of a gimmick.

Colin Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a slimey publicist who is targeted by a mad sniper (voiced by the smooth, threatening baritone of Kiefer Sutherland) from within Manhattan’s last free-standing phone booth, located in Times Square. The events escalate and Stu soon finds himself trapped by both the sniper and the police, as a murder suspect.

A premise like this one does not create a large amount of mystery about what’s likely to happen, and the surprise is that somehow the film does not feel quite as predictable as it should. If the concept is gimmicky, director Joel Schumacher milks it for all it’s worth, transforming the titular glass enclosure into a creepy aquarium-like setting for the main character’s emotional, sweat-drenched trial by long-range fire.

Phone Booth’s fast pace editing and variety of shots — methodical circling, zigzagging zooms and slow-mo’ swooping around the booth and its limited immediate area — keep things frenetic but snappy and holds the audience on a MTV/ Matrix/ Fight Club-style visual adrenaline rush.

The film’s pace reflects its 10-day shoot, Schumacher said in a recent interview with the Muse. “Everything about the film was chaotic,” he said, laughing. “The first day of shooting I was panicky. I thought people would walk out.” Despite his initial fears, Schumacher soon found relevance in the film’s attempted true-life voyeuristic aspect, he said.

“I wanted it to feel for you the way it does — when you turn on the news, what’s happening right then,” he said. “If you turned on the news and they were saying that there was a guy in a phone booth and they think he had killed somebody and he wouldn’t get off the phone, you would watch. We all would.”

For someone trapped in a phone booth, Stu certainly draws a crowd — including a trio of disgruntled prostitutes, led by an amusing Paula Jai Parker, and the more reserved women in his life, Kelly (Rhada Mitchell) and Pam (Katie Holmes), who take turns looking puzzled and distressed. Forrest Whitaker is rather levelheaded as the top cop assigned to defuse the booth debacle. Sutherland’s sniper sounds sinister and somewhat reminiscent of that other mystery caller from Scream, but with more creepy calm and unsolicited psychoanalysis to offer his captive.

Like his character, though, Farrell fittingly garners all the attention. He does right by the mediocre script, accepting the perplexing attempts at witticisms as vestiges of his loser character instead of leaving them as clichè moments for the hero/bad-guy banter highlight reel. Farrell’s emphatic performance out-paces the rest of the film, and, at times, it almost feels like a one-man acting exercise with creative editing.

“Colin Farrell was my first choice, but no one would let me do it with him because he was unknown.” (The filming took place in 2000). This casting problem was the reason for one of the film’s three postponements, Schumacher explained. “First the film was postponed because of Sept. 11th because it’s set in New York, then until after Minority Report came out because then Colin would have a bigger profile.”

The sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area pushed back the October 2002 release date another six months, he said. For Schumacher, there was no way the film could have disregarded the events of last fall. “You can’t put movies above humanity.”

Though Phone Booth impressively renders the basic scenario of its gimmick, it remains un-ambitious in developing the story’s other angles. The film begins cleverly, with a bass-boosted montage of the state of the phone usage of modern man. However, by the end, there exists a bit too much sketchy emotional candor from the characters and blatant disregard of most all of the intricacies of the situation that rob the film of its possible depth. For all its tension building, via cool split screen tricks, the film only succeeds in hammering home pulse-pounding, crash-zooming irrelevance.

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