“Phone Booth” exposes the ugly in modern America’s “I-me-mine” culture. The plot shoves a philandering low-rent media consultant, Stu, into a Manhattan phone booth and points a rifle at him. Colin Farrell, as Stu, dominates over half of the screen time. Considering much of the movie’s burden falls upon his handsome head, he deserves much of the credit in however many stars out of five this movie gets.
Farrell sustains interest with a performance that warbles credibly from cocky to agonized. Katie Holmes, as Stu’s client and the object of his ogling, does little more than add star power to the billboard, though she does that well enough.
The script, written in one week by Larry Cohen, manages to save itself by refusing to posit characters as strictly evil or strictly heroic. Its anti-hero Stu is stuck inside a glass confessional booth, tied to the line for fear of his life. The caller, played by Kiefer Sutherland of the TV hit “24,” embodies both sadistic villain and omniscient vindicator of mundane selfish acts. The caller’s compelling threats force Stu into a sharp critique of his habits. And the very thing that initially protects him from exposure — his being a amongst the multitude of urbanites — comes to turn on him. His hostage situation attracts a fleet of cops, media cameras and onlookers, including his wife.
The script flips the antagonist — traditionally an object of ill will — into an almost sympathetic figure. By virtue of looking, as spectators in the audience, we share the caller’s role as a voyeur, and so into a relationship of empathy with the killer. His constant voice-over allows him the prestige usually granted to the narrator, a man with whom the audience is accustomed to identify. These points which give the film an edge also function to irritate the audience. I often wished I could fire one at the caller’s disembodied drone. But that’s the point: no one knows where his body is.
Director Joel Schumacher shot the script rather hastily but skillfully, turning one L.A. block and a phone booth into agitated NYC turf — appropriately tense and never stuffy. He accomplishes a documentary style by shooting at times simultaneously with four cameras, with actors wearing ear pieces to coordinate lines. The footage sat around for over two years, its release delayed by the Washington sniper shootings.
The pacing of the film moves along fast enough considering its lack of cool camera tricks — besides the routine variation of angle and multiple split screens. At times the film becomes tiresome, but then the plot always calls its own bluff in time. It also recognizes the limits of its gimmicks by ending shortly after 80 minutes. It has fun with the conventions of thriller movies, though in retrospect, it often seems governed by pressure to upset expectations of its genre — an overdone trick. Though this film does not sink into pitfalls of oversimplification, neither does it quite break fresh ground. It’s nothing you can’t guess, but something thrilling enough to go see.