Phone Booth has been a troubled film for some time now. It was completed three years ago, back when people were obsessing over chads and “Survivor.”
The only thing that saved it from a quiet video release was the buzz around lead actor Colin Farrell. Reasons for its delay are plentiful: reshoots were necessary to replace the film’s villain from Ron Eldard (Black Hawk Down) to Kiefer Sutherland (“24”), which pushed the film smack dab into the eerily similar D.C. sniper shootings. Fox considered several tentative dates during those iffy weeks, but ultimately scheduled Phone Booth for a 2003 release.
The story pits a sleazy publicist (Colin Farrell) against a gravelly-voiced stranger with a rifle. Farrell’s character slyly uses the last phone booth in New York to call his would-be mistress every day, so that his cell phone bills won’t perplex his wife. One day, he instinctively picks up the ringing phone, only to find that the caller knows everything about him.
The film, which is only 80 minutes long, takes place almost entirely inside the booth. Farrell battles the caller, who strong-arms the conversation by forewarning that he has a rifle aimed at the booth from a nearby window. Tension thickens when the cops arrive, fingering the publicist for the man who recently shot an angry pimp outside of the same booth. A third conflict is tossed in when the girl he wants and the girl he has both show up at the scene, and the caller seems infatuated with incorporating this fact into his psychotic game.
Does this sound ridiculous enough yet? That’s because it is, but it’s also entertaining and inventive in the process. There’s not much that can be done with 80 minutes in and around a phone booth, but the film does it all. Flashbacks, lightning-quick editing, and “24”-style picture-in-picture are just some of the techniques used, and they all seem to work.
Director Joel Schumacher is one of the most inconsistent filmmakers of the past 20 years. In the ’90s, his films ran the gamut from spectacularly large failures (the last two Batman movies) to low budget successes like Tigerland and Falling Down. Throw in the dismal Bad Company and the well-received courtroom drama A Time to Kill, and it’s hard not to question Schumacher’s erraticism.
With this effort his direction is consumed by reckless abandon, the camera constantly spins around leaving no detail unturned. He gets some help and hip cred from Requiem for a Dream cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and from Farrell, whose facial expressions alone make the film engaging. In the supporting categories, Sutherland uses his spooky voice to add dimension to the bad guy, and Forest Whitaker (Panic Room) plays the head cop with ease.
In the end, Phone Booth is more like a music video stretched out into a semi-feature length film. For most movies, this would be a disaster, but it’s executed well by the parties involved. Don’t start thinking the Academy, but give it high marks for excitement and entertainment value, and put it on Schumacher’s “good” list.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.