Admitting to liking a movie directed by Joel Schumacher is like peeling the skin off my face, yet I have to confess that I had a very good time at Phone Booth. The film is as nicely nasty a little suspenser as could be imagined.
Little of its quality, alas, has much to do with Schumacher’s direction, and almost everything to do with horror schlockmeister Larry Cohen’s screenplay, plus strong performances by Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland. It’s really too bad that Cohen didn’t direct the film, since it’s so much part and parcel of his always interesting and far-too-little-explored filmography.
Cohen hasn’t been in the position of writer/director since 1990’s The Ambulance, but still, it’s not surprising that Phone Booth fits so well into the mold of his auteurist works. The story’s been kicking around for 20 years or more — probably why the screenplay must, somewhat torturously, explain why the main character would even be in a phone booth in this cellular age.
It’s also more than a little ironic that a movie made from a Cohen script would find its release delayed when its sniper story line seemed a little too close to the reality of last fall’s Washington, D.C. “Beltway Snipers.” (So much of Cohen’s approach to writing has always fallen under the sensationalistic umbrella “Ripped from Today’s Headlines” — wonder drugs with the side effect of producing monster babies (It’s Alive!); untested, highly addictive substances being marketed for greed (The Stuff); black-market organ-donor rackets (The Ambulance), etc.)
In this case, the headlines were accidentally ripped from Cohen’s story.
It’s a little unfair, however, to dismiss Cohen strictly as a schlockmeister — though I doubt he’d strenuously object to the term — since he’s always used his exploitation premises as springboards for social commentary and satire. Then again, he’s never lost sight of his primary goal, either: to deliver the goods on their own tabloidian merits.
Phone Booth is no exception — though it would have probably seemed a more trenchant commentary on the yuppie mentality of the 1980s than it does in 2003. The concept is simple: Sleazy PR sharpie Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), who uses the same phone booth every day to call his semi-girlfriend (Katie Holmes) so his wife won’t see the charge on the cell-phone bill, finds himself held prisoner in the booth by an unseen sniper (Kiefer Sutherland). The sniper insists that Stu tell the truth as the price of his life.
And that’s really all there is to the plot — but it’s enough to create 81 minutes of pretty potent entertainment. What makes it work is Cohen’s vicious — and intriguingly moralistic — sense of humor, which keeps things afloat, and the tightness of his writing: The action moves too fast for you to worry much about how realistic it is or isn’t.
While the anti-yuppie tone of the piece seems a little dated, Cohen has spruced things up for the new century, working in clever digs at the post-Rodney King media world, etc. Knowing the history of the script, though, it’s impossible not to think that the bit about the sniper being an embittered Vietnam veteran was originally a serious part of the plot that’s been quickly tweaked to bring it up to date. In the moment, however, the film, by turns funny (one line by a hooker who wants to use the phone booth Stu can’t leave is absolutely priceless) and suspenseful, holds your attention.
Farrell’s performance is probably his best to date. Sutherland’s almost entirely vocal turn is brilliant — smooth, silky, scary, and often funny. It may be the only case where you can say a performance was “phoned in” and not mean it in a bad way. On the debit side of the ledger, there’s Katie Holmes, who’s nearly as annoying here as she was in the egregious Abandon.
And then there’s Schumacher’s direction. Shot in 10 days, Phone Booth evinces nary a whiff of purple smoke; there just wasn’t time for Shumacher to undermine the film with his usual surface gloss. The movie has an unrelentingly gritty, sleazy, down-and-dirty look to it, as befits the screenplay. Schumacher’s crimes against the script are pretty much limited to annoying post-production doodads he’s grafted onto the proceedings, usually in the form of ill-advised uses of split screen. This reaches a high point of distraction in early scenes: An image of Katie Holmes phoning Farrell is pasted in and pointlessly moved back and forth across the screen, with her voice coming from one side of the theater one minute and the other side the next.
I’m sure Shumacher thought this was very clever, but the cleverness only serves to pull the viewer out of the story. Fortunately, there’s enough here that’s good that Schumacher’s creative intrusions are finally no more than pesty gnats shooed away by Cohen’s screenplay.