Phone Booth (review)

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Good Call

So this guy walks into a phone booth–

Phone booth? When was the last time you saw a phone booth? I mean, a quarter of a century ago, Christopher Reeve could already get a laugh when his Clark Kent looked askance at the little kiosk that was his only public telephonic refuge for quick changes. But here’s an entire movie, set in the 21st century, that expects us to accept not only that a phone booth still stands in Manhattan but that its glass panels remained unbroken until a dramatic moment here in the very course of events that unfold before our eyes.

But Phone Booth deals with this absurdity right off the bat, explaining it away plausibly enough, and it gets other communicatory details right, like how NYC’s phone company is now called Verizon but lots of their junk still says “Bell Atlantic” all over it. So you can file the anachronism away under Suspension Of Disbelief and get on with enjoying what is an otherwise entirely contemporary trope on reality TV and one of its most important dramas: the public confession.

So this guy walks into a phone booth, to make a call to the sweet young thing he’s pursuing, and he has to use this last bastion of public telephony because his wife would wonder about all the calls to the sweet young thing’s number on her husband’s cell phone bill. Yeah, Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell: Daredevil, The Recruit) is not a particularly nice guy — he’s a sharp-tongued, manipulative publicist as well as a smarmy jerk — but he doesn’t deserve what happens to him, either. After he hangs up with Pam (Katie Holmes: Abandon, The Gift), whom he still hasn’t succeeded in weaseling into bed, the phone rings back, and The Caller (the voice of Kiefer Sutherland: Dark City, Young Guns) tells Stu that if Stu hangs up, he’ll kill Stu. The little red laser-sighting dot on Stu’s chest, coming from high up in one of the surrounding buildings on this Midtown street, is all the evidence Stu needs to believe him. The Caller arranges things so that the cops and the media show up fairly quickly, and then we get The Caller’s demand: He wants Stu to confess to his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell: Pitch Black, Cleopatra’s Second Husband), what a smarmy jerk he is, and if all the TV cameras are watching while he cuts open a vein, so much the better.

It’s a tart, acid little tale that Hitchcock or Serling would have liked half a century ago, with an added bonus for us today: Our cultural backdrop is replete with prime-time gut-spilling and teary celebrity confessions to talk-show hosts and the utter abandonment of personal dignity you can witness every day on afternoon TV while Ricki Lake looks on, pretending to care. Ironically, our modern familiarity and even our contempt for public airings of very private dirty laundry makes Stu’s predicament all the more heart-rending and suspenseful, because he’s not there willingly, and he doesn’t want to tell all — certainly not with the world watching. Phone Booth takes the 15 minutes of fame back out of the equation, and mixes back in the fear, the embarrassment, the rage, and the pain of facing up to our own inadequacies and failures. Farrell is so sympathetic an actor and so capable of crawling under your skin, and his Stu is reduced to such a crushingly low point, beaten and broken by The Caller’s sadistic game, that I was on the verge of tears by the time it was all over.

God help me for admitting that I nearly cried — and not tears of anguish, either — at a film from Joel Schumacher, who has made some of the most godawful movies in recent years, like Bad Company and 8MM, as well as quite possibly one of the worst films of all time, Batman and Robin. But obviously Schumacher needed to be quite literally forced into a box — instead of giving him free rein to roam wild and spread damage across wide swathes of the pop-culture and current-events landscape, here he’s constricted by locale and by budget to do a lot with a little. This is practically a Roger Corman movie, and I mean that in the best way possible — Corman did a whole lot with hardly anything, too, and made movies with a pure love of making movies. Working from a script by Larry Cohen — whose other credits sound like Corman films: As Good as Dead, Maniac Cop — Schumacher’s Phone Booth is quick, dirty, and economical, with an on-the-fly energy that Hollywood films rarely evince these days.

And that energy is infectious and invasive. Just as Psycho gave showers a bad name forever, Phone Booth might have done the same for those claustrophobic glass boxes. If only they still existed.

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