Phone Booth (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Phone Booth became one of a number of post-9/11 films to fall victim to an increasing reluctance on the part of motion picture studios to release movies where on-screen events echo real-world tragedies. Joel Schumacher's thriller was originally set to enter multiplexes in November 2002, but, as a result of the shooting spree by a Washington D.C.-area sniper, 20th Century Fox decided to delay the release. The result makes for a pleasant early-year surprise. Phone Booth is certainly good enough to compete with the fourth quarter crowd. Placed in early spring, it offers viewers the best pure thriller of 2003 to-date.

The best way to describe Phone Booth is preposterous but entertaining. Due in large part to tight editing, a brisk pace, and a high level of suspense, we are able to suspend our disbelief for about 80 minutes. Afterwards, even a moment's consideration will reveal an avalanche of plot holes, but it is a tribute to the filmmakers that these are not recognized until after the end credits have rolled. Hitchcock referred to this sort of film as a "refrigerator movie" (you'd think of a plausibility problem while getting a post-movie snack from the refrigerator), and he would appreciate what Schumacher has wrought here.

Stuart Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a fast-talking publicist who thinks he's on top of the world. Wearing designer suits and a fake luxury watch, he struts down the sidewalks of Manhattan with his assistant in tow, talking on a cell phone and not taking "no" for an answer. A voiceover informs us: "It used to be a mark of insanity to see people talk to themselves. Now, it's a mark of status." Then comes Stuart's daily visit to the telephone booth at 53rd & 8th, from which he calls a pretty young actress named Pamela (Katie Holmes). Stuart finds her attractive and has entertained thoughts of pursuing an affair with her. Although he hasn't done anything yet, he uses the booth so his wife (Radha Mitchell) won't see Pamela's number on his phone bill. But Stuart's daily routine has not gone unnoticed, and, as soon as he hangs up with Pamela, the booth's phone rings. A voice (that of actor Kiefer Sutherland, moonlighting from his TV series, "24") informs Stuart that he is "guilty of inhumanity to your fellow man" and the "sin of spin - avoidance and deception". The voice states that he has a high-powered rifle trained on the phone booth from one of the many buildings with a view of the intersection, and if Stuart leaves the enclosure, he will be killed. To prove his point, the voice takes a victim. Suddenly, panic is everywhere and the police, led by a captain (Forest Whitaker), arrive and demand that Stuart hang up the phone and step out of the phone booth.

On one level, it's amazing that a movie about a man being trapped inside a phone booth could be successful, but Phone Booth works for many of the same reasons that Speed does - the script takes a seemingly dead-end premise and keeps throwing in new twists. One key to enjoying this movie is not to engage in "out of the box" thinking (or, arguably, any thinking at all) - it's better to uncover the problems and inconsistencies after the movie is over, not while it's unspooling. For those willing to accept this approach, Phone Booth will hold together surprisingly well while maintaining a high adrenaline level.

For Colin Farrell, this is another in the line of high-profile performances that have catapulted him from obscurity to stardom. Even before its sniper-related delay, the movie had been sitting on the shelf for a while, because the producers wanted to wait to release it until Farrell was a more bankable name. "Bankable" certainly describes him at this stage of his career. Farrell carries the movie, showing how fear and uncertainty can humble the slickest and most cock-sure of men. Forrest Whitaker provides solid support as the policeman who refuses to allow a "suicide by cop" to occur on his watch, and begins to believe that Stuart may be a hostage, rather than a hostage-taker.

Obviously, with a phone booth, there is claustrophobia. In addition, for most of the film, the villain is faceless - a cold, menacing voice on the other end of a phone line, playing at being God. Give Kiefer Sutherland credit for doing as much as he does with limited opportunities. Like in Steven Spielberg's Duel or John Dahl's Joy Ride, we are confronted with an implacable enemy. As time wears on, Stuart finds his range of options increasingly limited. He's a pawn in a one-sided game that may only end with his death. Phone Booth makes us care whether or not this happens.

Phone Booth (United States, 2002)

Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Colin Ferrell, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes, Radha Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2003-04-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1