Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Old Movie Review: Phone Booth (2002)

I plan to make this a regular column; revisiting older works in a present context as best I can.  Hope you enjoy.

Director: Joel Schumacher.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Forrest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland (who is a pirate, and that would explain everything: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCiageqMHJc), Katie Holmes.

I recall quite enjoying Phone Booth in theatres.  It was the kind of audacious, high-concept thriller that could easily attract a general popcorn crowd, but also manage to cram in a few ideas about human connection and such and such (more "and such and such" than anything else).  At best, it was the most entertaining useless yuppie redemption film of the early 2000s, far surpassing screenwriter Larry Cohen's Cellular - a film equally obsessed with antiquated technology.

Upon revisiting it, could there have possibly been a worse director than Batman & Robin's Joel Schumacher for a film meant to be set entirely on a city block?

So, instead, the movie opens in space, zooming into New York to focus on a barrage of cell phone users.  According to Wikipedia and IMDB (granted, not the most reliable sources), Cohen apparently pitched the idea of a man stuck in a phone booth for an entire film to Alfred Hitchcock in the 60's.  Though Hitchcock liked the idea, neither party could think of a reason for a man to stay in a booth for a feature-length film.  I somewhat doubt the veracity of the story, given that rifle assassins in book depositories and motels were rather prevalent at the time.  According to Cohen, the idea of a sniper only occured to him in the late nineties.  The film was then delayed release after filming due to the D.C. sniper attacks.

Cell phones were largely ubiquitous by 2002, so Cohen goes a long way to justify the use of a phone booth.  This leads to an obnoxious, Twilight Zone-style narration full of statistical data on the uprise of cell phone use and the upcoming destruction of one of the last phone booths left in Times Square - the one, of course, our lead Colin Farrell is destined to use.  Farrell, an egocentric PR man, spends the first fifteen minutes of the film wheeling and dealing with some of the most ham-fisted movie-celebrities ever on screen.  Hollywood can be really good at parodying itself, particularly when actual L.A. royalty is willing to participate.  But a 62-year-old screenwriter like Cohen, mostly known for his excellent, offbeat B-movies as opposed to mainstream genre schlock like this, gets you an Eminem-clone named Big Q offering up lines like, "Voodoo on you-do, motherfucker, from Big Q to Big Stu!"

So after Schumacher introduces us to, you know, space, Farrell lands in a phone booth.  By 2002, again, even this requires justification.  Farrell takes off his wedding ring to call his would-mistress (Katie Holmes) so his wife won't catch the call on his cell phone bill.  After being rejected for drinks with Holmes, the phone rings, and the robotic but oddly threatening voice of Kiefer Sutherland takes over the movie.  At least now, it's genuinely fun crap.  The first act, consisting of Farrell doing his job, is nearly unbearable; using old screenwriter tricks to establish Farrell as fast as possible.  Unpleasant though it may be, it works.  But once Sutherland kicks in, at the very least it becomes fun.

But Joel Schumacher didn't think so.  So terrified was he at the prospect of filming something claustrophobic, he constantly employs busy little inserts of police gearing up and other frantic action.  Cohen's script is fast-paced and smart enough for a film like this.  There's quite a lot going on outside the booth to keep the story moving - including Forrest Whitaker as the most needy hostage negotiator ever written.  He mentions his divorce repeatedly, but not in the way a negotiator would - more like he needed the sniper victim to counsel him (bad fucking timing, right?).

Sutherland's voice, creepy as it is, also never establishes much of a motive.  He mentions shooting a Wall Street investor who stole millions and refused to repent, as well as a German child pornographer.  What's Farrell's crime?  He almost cheats on his wife.  Almost, maybe.  For a sniper/serial killer, it just seems like a step far too down. German child pornographers and Bernie Madoff?  I'm with you, Kiefer Sutherland.  But aren't there worse people to prosecute who use pay phones?  Drug dealers, at least, still used phone booths in the early 2000s. A guy who's only crime is being kind of a self-promoting dick?

But Sutherland sells it.  His voice carries.  But Farrell's doesn't.

As I said, the yuppie redemption story is just brutal, with self-confessional lines like, "My two-thousand dollar watch is a fake and so am I!"

It would have been wonderful to see what Hitchcock would have done, if that story is accurate.  It's a feat he pulled off beautifully with Rope, a far better film and one that includes even more of a gimmick.  I think Schumacher was afraid the gimmick wouldn't sell action figures.

I must close, though, on a full-fledged defense of Larry Cohen.  I've been a little hard on him tonight, but he truly has written some of the most inventive B-movies available.  I recommend Q: The Winged Serpent and God Told Me To.  

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