Phone Booth (2002)

*. 2002. The year is significant. For one thing, the film’s premise is badly dated. Phone booths in 2002 were no longer familiar urban landmarks. The opening narration tells us that they’re still used (at least by criminals and other low-lifes), but they’re being phased out. The only reason for Stu entering this particular one (“the last booth of its type still in operation . . . scheduled to be torn down”) is to keep calls to his mistress off his cell phone bill.
*. 2002 is also some forty years after Larry Cohen first pitched a movie set in a phone booth to Alfred Hithcock — someone whose love of a challenge led him to at least consider the idea. Alas, it was not to be. They couldn’t figure out a convincing reason for why the entire movie should be so constrained. So instead we got a Joel Schumacher movie. What a falling off was there!
*. The film’s long gestation may also help explain the somewhat quaint morality on display. Andrew Sarris was confused as to why “a moralistic sniper would torture a sleazy publicist into tears of guilt and remorse over what amounts to a few paltry, venial sins.” And Roger Ebert would remark that “The movie is essentially a morality play, and it’s not a surprise to learn that Larry Cohen, the writer, came up with the idea 20 years ago — when there were still phone booths and morality plays.” Or, we might add, morality.
*. But more than all this, 2002 was two years before the release of Saw. And isn’t Phone Booth just Saw on the street? A mysterious serial-killer psycho — Kiefer Sutherland, only credited as the Caller — traps playboy publicist Stuart Shepard (Colin Farrell) in a room. Well, actually a phone booth. We don’t see the Caller but only hear his voice. He wants to play a game. It seems that even though life has been good to Stu he doesn’t appreciate all that he has (as Joel Schumacher puts it on his commentary, Stu is “basically an asshole”). The Caller wants to help change that. It’s a test, of the kind I’ve referred to elsewhere as the Game of Death. Will Stu learn to value what he should? Live or die, it’s his choice.

*. Hell, they even thrown in a black detective (Forest Whitaker, who is about as useful as Danny Glover’s Detective Tapp) and a twist ending that shows just how far ahead of the game the Caller is. With a bit more violence and a tighter script there might have been a franchise here.
*. Poor Katie Holmes. She’s not a homewrecker but seems a good-natured if naive girl who is being strung along and used by Stu. Her fate, once Stu is reunited with his wife? To fade back into the crowd, disappearing from the film without comment.
*. And while I’m feeling sorry for people, let’s also shed a fleeting tear for the poor pizza delivery guy. What was he to the moralizing Caller? A prop? Collateral damage? I mean the bouncer/pimp across the street seems like a shady character and his death is no great loss to society, but why kill the poor schmuck who is stuck in one of the worst jobs in the world?
*. I don’t think this movie works, mainly because the premise is ridiculous and the tension never ratchets up as much as it should. For such a gimmick concept and short running time (only 80 minutes) the script needed to be sharper. There’s a surprising amount of padding here, from the Katie Holmes character (why even have her show up at the barricade?) to the toy robots. Wan and Whannell would have had a lot of fun with those.
*. I’m also iffy about the casting. Colin Farrell doesn’t sound right. That may be down to his not having developed an American accent yet, but then I thought Kiefer Sutherland’s voice was even more unsuited for the Caller. Sutherland just doesn’t have that cruel edge. Maybe if they’d done something to make the connection a little less clear it would have helped. The perfect audio quality of the calls seems unnatural.
*. I’ve said it’s a gimmicky movie, and the split screen is part of this. How often does this work? Here I think it just draws attention to itself without furthering the plot or developing the characters.
*. The ending wasn’t popular. David Edelstein in particular singled it out for criticism, figuring that since the general release date got pushed back four months (because of the D.C. sniper attacks) they should have had time to fix it. But I doubt a project that had been marinating for twenty years or more was going to be helped by a few extra months, and in any event this was a quick-and-dirty production, shot in twelve days. I don’t think they wanted to spend any more time on it.
*. Does the ending seem unearned? Too tidy? Probably a bit of both. But in the wake of Saw and its like I think that it’s mainly just too old fashioned. It’s a movie that in some interesting ways was ahead of its time, but ultimately found itself too far behind.

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