Review: Phone Booth

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )

What if you were held hostage? What if you were held a phone booth? That is the premise behind Joel Schumacher’s latest venture. While Schumacher singled handedly destroyed the Batman franchise, he makes Phone Booth into a success. Despite a few glitches in the plot and a few more in the script, there is no doubt that Phone Booth is a positive movie going experience, well worth your money and time (very little time actually, with a running length of 80 minutes). For having a simplistic, overly impossible plot, and being a morality play, Phone Booth feels surprisingly fresh throughout the duration.

Stu Shepard, is a hot-shot publicist, who thought he had the whole of Manhattan wired. He had all the right connections, except for the connection on the other line of a ringing phone. One of Manhattan’s last working pay phones still in operation, on its last day of service, (and as a voiceover says, its last call), begins to ring. Stu, like many of us would, is enticed by the curiosity surrounding a mysteriously ringing phone, and picks up. What happens then is something that even the most superstitious and phobic person couldn’t have fathomed, the voice on the other line tells him that he has a rifle pointed right at him, and if he leaves the booth or hangs up...he’s a dead man. Some very loudmouthed hookers begin waiting for the phone, and when Stu injures the ring leaders “dick-hand,” her pimp comes to her rescue. The sniper decides to help out a little, and disposes of the pimp. This in turn causes panic, and within minutes, numerous police are on the seen. Being falsely accused of the crime by the hookers, and being ordered out of the booth, Stu must balance the orders of the sniper with the orders of the police, who also have rifles.

Without being able to see “the caller,” there is no character development what so ever. This creates a problem: how to you explain the motives for a person holding another person captive in a phone booth? To side-step this, the writer turned Phone Booth into a morality play, or a film that directly deals with a specific moral, like a children’s book. For those hard-pressed to find an example of a morality play, they need only look to an April release from last year, Changing Lanes. While that film dealt with the consequences of not caring for your fellow man, and the golden rule (do unto others as you would want done unto you), Phone Booth uses the moral of “telling the truth.” Stu is not an honest person. He is cheating on his wife, and his career as a publicist requires him to spill lies from his mouth at the same rate at which he breathes. “The Caller” somehow knows this, and as arranged this whole little wake up call. Unlike Changing Lanes however, the moral surrounding Phone Booth never feels overly preachy. I am not a big fan or these morality plays, but for Phone Booth, it works. Being able to write in motive, caused another problem for the writer, one they were not able to clean up, why would “The Caller” being doing this? Not even God would hold up a man in a Phone Booth for telling lies. (If so, Jeremy, you’re a goner!) And not even the writer were able to come up for a logical reason.

Despite the conclusion, which shines a poor light upon the finale of the film, Phone Booth is very well written, utilizing smart and realistic dialogue. For a movie about a man being held hostage in a Phone Booth from a capture the man cannot even see may sound silly in premise, but the writer Larry Cohen was able to avoid this. Upon examination days after seeing the movie, I can see how silly the plot of the movie was, but during the 80 minutes it was playing, I was enthralled and not the least bit overcome by skepticism.

Phone Booth has been at the brunt of many jokes like, “Oh, I am not going to pay $9 to see a guy in 1 phone booth for two hours!” It is true that the film is about a man in a phone booth, but the plot, in its simplicity is almost genius in its surrealistic approach. As Hollywood begins to churn out cookie-cutter movie after another, its so refreshing to see something new come along. The fact that the script uses morals as a motive for “The Caller” never effects this feeling of uniqueness.

Had Phone Booth been dragged out to a 100+ minute film, there could have been serious problems that not even a unique idea could have cured. Phone Booth is thankfully only a brisk 80 minutes. The running time can be crucial to a film, especially a thriller. I fear that had Phone Booth been dragged out much further, it would have given me time to contemplate the probability and overall silliness of the plot during the movie, which would have destroyed the experience of Phone Booth. The running time is not the only other interesting comment on the technological feeling and standpoint of Phone Booth that I have. The camera rarely leaves Stu, and when he is being held hostage in the Phone Booth, the camera never leaves the surrounding area of the Phone Booth. This provides an almost claustrophobic feeling which is some cases can hurt a film, but here, with this plot, adds to the effect. Not since Charlie’s Angels have I seen the employment of the split-screen, but we have that here in Phone Booth. While too frequent, split screen shots are in the film. Its simply a matter of taste whether you will like these shots, but for me, they work, adding dimension to the film.

The acting is universally great in Phone Booth. Colin “how long do I have to be a ‘rising star’ for?” Farrell is excellent as Stu. We have seen him quite a bit lately, playing more of a caricature is Daredevil, and in a more serious role in The Recruit, and having a smaller role in this past June’s Minority Report. He has yet to let us down, and he doesn’t drop the ball in Phone Booth, on the contrary, I think this is his best performance to date. As every scene revolves around him, he is able to stay interesting. The much smaller roles, the supporting cast is excellent. Forrest Whitaker plays a Capt. Ramey and does an good job, especially in his interactions with Farrell. The voice of “The Caller” may have some people trying to place the voice for the duration of the entire movie. The voice is non-other than another star of a real time, Keifer Sutherland on TV’s 24. He is ominous, dark, and at times even slightly sadistic as “The Caller,” but he avoids being silly which is a plus.

Phone Booth has some believability problems, but is it really more unlikely than say, the plot of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or some other Hollywood generated crap? Phone Booth represents 80 minutes of enjoyable, well-acted, fresh and unique film making from usually disappointing director Joel Schumacher. In Fall, 2002, The Beltway Sniper had all of Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia holed up in their own homes. I hope that this sniper situation draws you out of your house, and holes you up in a movie theater.

© 2003 Jacob Sproul

April 2003 Archive
2003 Archive
Main Archive