THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"PHONE BOOTH"

I've been waiting a long time to see Phone Booth. The film - directed by Joel Schumacher - was originally scheduled for release a year-and-a-half ago. Studio execs decided star Colin Farrell wasn't well known enough, so they delayed it until Fall 2002, after some of the actor's more high-profile films (including Minority Report) had come out. It was pushed back again when the Beltway Sniper began killing people in Virginia and Maryland. Since a sniper is a major part of the story in Phone Booth, no one wanted to appear as though they were exploiting a real-life tragedy. That brings us to right now, when the movie finally opens in theaters. It's been a long time coming, but for me it was definitely worth the wait. Phone Booth is a massively suspenseful (and very innovative) picture that had my total attention from start to finish.

Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a small-time entertainment publicist who likes to pretend he's a much bigger deal than he really is. The film's opening moments find Stu trolling around Times Square playing mentor to a young "intern", blatantly manipulating several magazines to get one of his clients on the front page, and milking freebies out of a clueless restaurant owner by making false promises. It's clear from the get-go that Stu is kind of a slimy guy. After ditching the intern, he heads to what we are told is the last free-standing phone booth in Manhattan. It is not located in a very good neighborhood. Stu takes off his wedding ring and calls Pam (Katie Holmes), a pretty young client he hopes to sleep with. When he hangs up with her, the phone rings, so Stu answers it. The voice on other other end (provided by Keifer Sutherland) claims to have a high powered rifle pointed at Stu's head. If he hangs up, he will be shot.


Colin Farrell can't hang up or he will be assassinated in the thriller Phone Booth
 
Of course, Stu thinks this is a prank, although the caller does know his name. He also knows all about Pam. Now, Stu begins to get worried. A group of hookers comes over wanting to use the phone. Stu tells them to get lost. They recruit the assistance of a nearby strip club bouncer, who threatens to beat Stu with a baseball bat. The caller is amused by the fact that Stu is screwed either way, but shoots the bouncer nonetheless. The hookers think Stu shot him. Cops are called, and before long Stu is surrounded by armed police officers, who believe they are looking at a standoff. TV cameras are not far behind; when footage of the incident airs, Pam arrives on the scene, as does Stu's wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell).

The cop is charge of handling the situation is Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker). He tries to talk Stu into coming out of the phone booth. Stu briefly considers, but then the caller threatens to shoot either Pam or Kelly instead. No matter what he does, he's stuck in that booth. Eventually, the caller's motives come out; he wants Stu to own up to his lying, manipulative ways. He wants him to come clean about Pam to his wife. Only then, he claims, will Stu be allowed to go free. As this is going on, Ramey begins to suspect that things are different than they really appear. He sends signals to Stu, hoping to get a clue about what's really occurring.

Phone Booth is an ingenious movie on several levels. First, it takes place almost entirely in and around that booth. Despite - or perhaps because of - this limited setting, the movie achieves real suspense. The caller is watching from one of the windows outside, although he cannot be seen. There is nowhere for Stu to go, nowhere to hide. He is shielded only by four walls of glass. When done properly, claustrophobic settings can be very effective in motion pictures. They can give you a sense that the characters in them are extraordinarily vulnerable. That's what happens here. Stu is trapped, and you can feel the weight of that.

Another interesting thing is how Schumacher takes a very limited setting and opens it up. The director often splits the screen into quadrants, each one showing a different perspective on what's happening. Other times, he uses a picture-in-picture device. The large part of the screen will show Stu talking into the phone, while a small box in the corner of the screen will show something else (the person to whom he is talking, etc.). This technique not only gives Phone Booth a unique feel, but it serves to add texture to the story. We can see what's going on around Stu without ever really leaving that booth.

The best thing about the movie is that it features two excellent, yet very different, performances. Colin Farrell is nothing less than mesmerizing in the role of Stu. Think about what an acting challenge this must have been. For most of the running time, he is in a confined space. There are rarely other actors for him to play off. Most of his role requires him to react to an unseen character on the other end of a telephone line. Quite a feat, to be sure. Farrell nails it, playing a wide range of intense emotions as Stu goes from arrogance to concern, outright fear to an emotional breakdown. This is really an accomplished piece of acting.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Keifer Sutherland. We don't see him until the last 90 seconds of the movie. Despite this, his voice generates sufficient menace to really make the drama of the situation come alive. The caller is such a significant part of the story that if you don't buy him, the whole movie will collapse. Sutherland really creates a bad guy who deserves to be feared. I also admire the way Larry Cohen's screenplay doesn't try to rationalize the caller's motives. There's no hokey resolution to the plot, no grand explanation for why the caller does what he does. All that matters is that he knows Stu is a jerk and he intends to bring him down a notch.

Phone Booth is a very short movie (81 minutes including end credits) but the length is appropriate to the story. This is not a plot you could drag out for two hours without making it obvious that the material was being stretched. As it stands, the film is compact and suspenseful, with a good moral at the end. This is the kind of thriller I most enjoy seeing - one that really pulls me in, makes me feel the danger, and keeps me thinking on my way out the door.

( 1/2 out of four)


Phone Booth is rated R for pervasive language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 21 minutes.

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