Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Phone Booth

Propelled by a simple, irresistible high-concept hook–an action/suspense movie that confines its hero to a glass box for 80 minutes–Larry Cohen's script for Phone Booth has the makings of an audacious chamber piece, the sort of stunt that Alfred Hitchcock pulled off with 1948's Rope. A spartan production by Hollywood standards, the film was shot over 15 days on a minimal budget (mythologized at $1.5 million, but actually closer to $10 million), which seems right for the down-and-dirty immediacy the story required. Why, then, does director Joel Schumacher choose to start the movie in outer space? The opening shot epitomizes everything wrong with Phone Booth: Given the chance to stage human drama on an intimate, suffocating scale, Schumacher begins in the endless expanse of the void, tricked out with gratuitous CGI effects. After whooshing back to Earth, the film lands in the anxious hustle and bustle of downtown New York, where millions of calls are zipping through the wires and everyone is barking on cell phones–though plenty of Luddites, the narrator assures, are still using the city's pay phones. One of the barkers is Colin Farrell, a sleazy celebrity publicist who recalls Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell Of Success, except that his torrent of lies expands in all directions, from his B-list clients to his naïve young protégé to the deceptions he pulls on his wife (Radha Mitchell) and mistress (Katie Holmes). His sins come back to haunt him when he stops at a phone booth off Times Square and takes a call from a sniper who threatens to shoot him if he hangs up. Demanding that Farrell make sincere amends, the sniper (played by the weirdly disembodied voice of Kiefer Sutherland) picks off a nearby pimp to show his resolve, causing a commotion that beckons police captain Forest Whitaker and a small army of New York's finest. Though it amounts to little more than a standard-issue yuppie redemption story, Cohen's script has the resourcefulness to sustain tension under the tight constraints of real time and a single location. But Schumacher, every bit the director of Batman & Robin, seems so concerned about losing the audience that he clutters the screen and the sound design with a frantic busyness that borders on panic. Everything is overdone: The score pounds relentlessly, the streets scream with noise, paintbox images are inserted on every corner of the frame, and the setting looks like a garish theme-park version of pre-Giuliani Times Square. Treated like a crude Hollywood one-off, Phone Booth sweeps through with the speed and efficiency of a thief, robbing a delicious premise of all but a few empty calories.

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