Phone Booth

Rated: R
Stars:    Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes
Director:   Joel Schumacher
Screenwriter:   Larry Cohen

This is 80 minutes of slick and gripping storytelling even if the premise harbors a few irrationalities. A man answers a phone in what’s supposed to be New York City’s last standing phone booth only to be told by the mysterious caller that if he hangs up, he’ll be shot dead on the spot.

Colin Farrell gets to run the gamut of emotions playing victim Stu Shepard, an arrogant, truth-bender of a publicist who’s cheating on his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) with aspiring actress Pam (Katie Holmes). Stu uses the phone booth rather than his cell phone to call Pam, which he does everyday, so that Kelly won’t spot the recurring number on his bill. After completing one such call, he makes the mistake of picking up the ringing phone only to hear a honey-voiced stranger, alternating between eerie whispers and pysho cackling (Kiefer Sutherland, unseen for the better part of the film) who knows everything about his life rip into him for his various sins against society (as a publicist, he lies for a living) and matrimony (Kelly doesn’t deserve to have a cheat for a husband). It appears the caller has taken up a sniper’s position with a bird’s eye view of the booth and, as he later tells us, he’s done this kind of thing before. Only in those cases, the victims’ “crimes” were formidable compared to Stu’s weak constitution. If the vigilante really wanted to lower his standards that much, then why not target any of the hookers or drug dealers frequenting the same phone booth? But then they’d be less sympathetic than Farrell’s Stu as he unravels so completely. We know Stu’s a big mouth fake, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s harmless and the confession he’s later forced to make to Kelly and ultimately to the world is pretty meaningless. This is the biggest misstep of the script but it moves so fast you may not think to notice.

The caller shoots a pimp threatening to overtake Stu and reclaim the phone booth as his turf. The cops come, lead by Forest Whitaker’s super calm and sensible Captain Ramey, then the media, then Stu’s wife, then the girlfriend. Everyone thinks Stu has lots his marbles and that’s he’s the shooter. The stakes keep getting higher when Stu comes to realize that by following orders or not he is responsible for the next life that might be taken or saved. It’s a nifty dilemma the filmmakers have placed him in.

Lotta says Farrell’s got the grit to pull off the role while writer Cohen and director Schumacher effectively keep the plot points lean and the action moving. Phone Booth opens like a documentary – the people of New York City, Manhattan to be exact, going about their business from rappers rapping, street kids break dancing and people off to work – to odd facts about telephone usage. What follows is a high wire act of dramatic tensions, some real, some forced. But in the end, the film works. My only beef was Sutherland’s voice, amplified as if coming from a high-quality outdoor speaker system rather than transmitted through phone line. After a while, though, even that didn’t matter. But the trick ending doesn’t quite trick. It’s rated R for pervasive profanity and some violence.

Reviewed 4/11/03