Director : Joel Schmuacher
Screenplay : Larry Cohen
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Colin Farrell (Stu Shepard), Kiefer Sutherland (The Caller), Forest Whitaker (Capt. Ramey), Radha Mitchell (Kelly Shepard), Katie Holmes (Pamela McFadden), Paula Jai Parker (Felicia), Arian Ash (Corky), Tia Texada (Asia), John Enos III (Leon), Richard T. Jones (Sergeant Cole)
What surprises most about Phone Booth is not that director Joel Schumacher manages to keep us interested and engrossed in a story that takes place entirely inside a glass phone booth on a New York street corner, but that the story needs very little visual razzle-dazzle to keep the momentum going forward. In fact, as usual, Schumacher comes close to overdirecting to the point of distraction, giving us unnecessary computer-generated tours of the inside of telephone systems and cranking up the high-speed motion whenever he fears he might lose us.
What keeps us intrigued is not Schumacher’s directorial flamboyance, but a combination of the narrative, which was scripted by ’70s B-movie auteur Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Stuff), and the lead performance by Colin Farrell as a man trapped by a sniper in a phone booth and forced to confess all his worst sins. To be honest, the story is almost absurdly simple, and it is has to be stretched quite thin to fill a scant 80 minutes of screen time. Yet, there is something primal and fascinating about this set-up that demands our attention and our desire to discover the outcome. In some ways, the whole movie feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone, which is underscored by a rather silly and unnecessary bit of omniscient narration near the film’s beginning (I almost expected it to include something like “Our story takes place in a phone booth with a direct connection to … the Twilight Zone”).
Farrell, who was not yet a star when the film was originally in production back in 2001 (he has starred in Schumacher’s gritty training-camp drama Tigerland, but that was about it), knows that he’s the center of the film and he plays his role to the hilt. He stars as Stu Shepard, a slicked-back publicist who walks the streets of New York in his Italian suits barking into two cell phones simultaneously. He’s playing a role in life, pretending to be someone important when in fact he’s just another cog in the engine, a publicity flak in an expensive suit who feeds the celebrity machine for his own benefit. He cares about no one but himself, which is what ultimately gets him into trouble.
It turns out that someone wants to teach Stu a lesson. That someone (voiced with dripping menace by Kiefer Sutherland) has a high-powered rifle with a telescope, and he traps Stu in a glass phone booth on a New York street corner and forces him to make amends for all that he has done wrong in his life. Mostly, this involves his attempting to start an affair with a young actress (Katie Holmes) when he has a wife (Kelly Shepard) to whom he’s been married only a year. There are other sins, as well, which are more abstract, but no less confession-worthy, and the sniper is intent on getting Stu to confess them all, even after an entire police unit shows up and the scene turns into exactly the kind of media circus of which someone like Stu would love to be in control.
Phone Booth, like most episodes of The Twilight Zone, is ultimately a morality tale, a story about a selfish man who, through extreme circumstances, is forced to confront not a great external evil, but the evil of his own nature. Watching Farrell’s Stu slowly break down through the story, his carefully coiffed hair becoming more and more disheveled and his once-cocky demeanor reduced to the erratic lurching and panicked defenses of an animal caught in a trap and willing to gnaw its own leg off to get away is absorbing in and of itself, and one wishes that Schumacher would have for once trusted the inherent intrigue of the material and not tried to dress it up so much.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick