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Phone Booth

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Radha Mitchell, Ron Eldard, Richard T. Jones, Katie Holmes, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Jones

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Your grandchildren will look at your tape of this film and ask you, "Gran'dad, what's that box?" By then, given the near-universal use of cell phones, not only will the pay phone go the way of the typewriter, but people walking in pairs down the street will talk into their personal phones, each the size of a chip implanted in the ear. Keeping history alive for future generations may not be the reason that Joel Schumacher's "Phone Booth" is a welcome addition to the thriller genre: more important, the story which takes place largely inside the eponymous booth should not have worked outside the live stage but turns out instead to be the first terrific thriller of this year. With Hollywood's handsomest, Colin Farrell, at the receiving end of a caller more irritating than the guy who keeps trying to sell me real estate in North Dakota, "Phone Booth" increases the tension incrementally for its tantalizing eighty minutes so adeptly that you'll forget a few plot holes and concentrate on why his character, publicist Stu (so named, I guess, because he's in one), could avert his gaze from his gorgeous wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) to even think of starting an affair with the barely post-pubescent Pamela (Katie Holmes).

Joel Schumacher is just the director who could give the film its grit while making us suspend judgment enough to buy the Ethics 101 undercurrent. Having brought Farrell out of obscurity into the Hollywood spotlight with "Tigerland" (the effect of rigorous training on raw recruits who move on to a simulated Vietnam battlefield), Schumacher has the touch. While concentrating Matthew Libatique's camera on a now-anachronistic phone booth on Manhattan's West Side (actually filmed in L.A. with Andrew Laws's design making the most of the $1.5 million budget), Schumacher keeps the action cinematic with the split screens that TV couch potatoes are so familiar with and one of the year's most inventive openers to set the tone for the most chilling phone call since Wes Craven's "Scream."

Schumacher opens "Phone Booth" with a scene of Stu frantically racing up Manhattan's midtown streets, his busy, unpaid assistant Adam (Keith Nobbs) absorbing what it takes to be a publicist while playing prospective clients like chess pieces while his boss assures everyone he calls that he or she is "my favorite client." (Therein is the first plot hole: publicists never lie.) After placing his wedding band on top of the phone in the titular booth, he calls and flirts with the youthful and innocent Pamela (Katie Holmes) who, understanding that publicists never lie, is assured that Stu is single. Stu may be sharp enough to get away with a prospective affair but makes the near fatal error of answering phone, which begins ringing after he hangs up. Goes to show how much ridiculous stress we put on phone lines: calls must be answered. Told by an insane but clever and articulate sniper with a high-powered rifle that makes a menacing click each time the safety is removed that Stu's dead meat if he hangs up or leaves the booth, Stu is for the first time in his life riveted on what the other guy (voice of Kiefer Sutherland) is saying: that Stu is "guilty of inhumanity." For credibility the shooter takes out a pimp who lurks outside the booth.l

"Phone Booth" is filled with a dozen or so shots of police surrounding the unfortunate publicist, takes that we've seen many, many times before which, next to the crackerjack screenplay of Larry Cohen become irritating and unnecessary and serve to take our attention away from the exquisite minimalism of the script. Likewise every scene that focuses on Forest Whitaker in the role of a hostage negotiator takes away from the natural tension generated by Cohen's writing. There are no subplots, no complications from left field in a film that reminds one of Tom Twyker's similarly fast-paced "Run Lola Run (a man on a payphone begs his girlfriend to come up with 100,000 marks in twenty minutes' time if she wants to see him alive again).

"Phone Booth" was shelved for a while, having been scheduled to come out coincidentally at the time that two real-live snipers were creating frenzy in the D.C. area and beyond. I'm mystified. Unless a movie is pure escapism like "Daredevil," shouldn't we welcome a story that punctuates the adage that art reflects life and vice versa? Isn't the expression "Straight from today's headlines" a desideratum? Since the real sniper team is now in jail and the public has presumably shifted its mind to other pressing matters six thousand miles away, "Phone Booth" is scheduled to come out safety on April 4. I'm wondering how the excellent information team at 20th Century Fox is dealing with a concluding point that Stu makes in the movie just before he tosses his fake Rolex aside and is about to assume a new sense of responsibility:"Adam, don't become a're better than that."

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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