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Phone Booth

Superman can't find a phone booth anymore, but somehow Colin Farrell can. And unfortunately for him, he visits that same booth with such regularity that a madman with a moral agenda and a rifle can pinpoint him for an eighty minute mindgame. If you can get past that implausibility (okay, and about a half-dozen others), Phone Booth proves to be a tense thriller, just not one as important as it thinks it is.

In movie terms, it's one bankable high concept. And indeed, the script by Larry Cohen was a hot commodity a couple of years ago. Cheap to shoot, with a juicy leading role for any decent actor with a decent ego, both Will Smith and Jim Carrey considered it, as well as a variety of hot directors.

Somehow, Joel Schumacher ended up helming it, with his personal It Boy Farrell in the lead. Though good at pacing, as a director, Schumacher has never met a simple script he couldn't tart up. The heart of what made Phone Booth attractive remains, but it sure has to fight its way through a lot of unnecessary glitz.

To make the film more universal, Schumacher starts in the outer reaches of the atmosphere, traveling from a telecommunications satellite down to a bustling city. Nothing like the global perspective to give us the touch of the common man.

Out of the din, we pick out Stu Shephard (Farrell), an obnoxious publicity agent with a strange Brooklyn brogue. Treating everyone around him with barely veiled contempt, he stops to make a phone call that may change his life.

Every day, he uses the same phone booth to call a client, Pamela (Katie Holmes), and try to seduce her into a hotel room tryst. Why use a phone booth? Because Stu's wife (Radha Mitchell) checks the cell phone bill.

And then the weirdness starts to topple like dominoes. A pizza guy delivers a pizza to Stu in the phone booth. The phone rings. On the other end, the crushed velvet voice of Kiefer Sutherland, making all kinds of veiled threats.

Though Stu hangs up, he can't resist answering the phone a second time. (Why? Because we'd have no movie without it, you fools.) Then the game gets dangerous, as his unknown caller proves to be a crack shot.

The rules of the game are simple. Stu cannot tell anyone what's happening, but must not hang up. For some reason, the caller wants Stu to confess his attempted peccadillo to his wife, or a bullet will pierce his heart.

As proof that he means business, the caller confesses to two earlier high-profile assassinations, of a child pornographer and the CEO of an Enron-like company. Compared to that, thinking about sleeping with Katie Holmes seems pretty low on the list of sins, but there you go. All of us at Fanboy Planet now must fear a sniper's bullet.

Eventually the cast of characters grows to include the police, led by Forest Whitaker. They're slow but good-hearted. Though they never question how a street pimp could possibly have been shot in the back by Stu while facing him, Whitaker's Captain Ramey susses out that all is not what it seems.

To tell the story and keep the focus on Farrell's sweaty but finely chiseled face, Schumacher pulls a lot of tricks from the director's bag. The one with the most varied effect is the old sixties standby of the split screen. Often he turns it into a variation of picture-in-picture, which adds to our sensation of being voyeurs. Is that creepy judgmental voice of Sutherland actually the one in our own heads?

But for a lot of scenes, Schumacher arbitrarily turns up the effects, proving that he can be an artist. Let's repeat this bit of advice, though. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should do it. (See earlier Schumacher example: Just because you can put nipples on the Batsuit doesn't mean you should.)

The CG effects take away from the personal element of the story, and the arty washes used constantly remind us this is only a movie. Without them, we might be able to get completely swept up and forget all the plot mistakes. (The third act completely hinges upon Stu being able to do something that earlier on, it's established he can't.)

The script itself only touches upon depth, being more concerned with just providing a good ride. In a clever turn, the caller runs through a litany of motivations for onscreen killers, ultimately exposing them all for the clichés they are. When the film tries for a heavier message, it just sort of peters away, perhaps because of the over-flashy direction and editing.

All the performances are earnest. Farrell has enough intensity to hold the screen, and though Sutherland's voice has clearly been dubbed in after the fact (he replaced Ron Eldard after the shoot), he delivers an incredibly effective performance. However, both actresses, while comely, could have been replaced by the proverbial wooden puppets. It's not their fault - this is a movie about two men, and their sense of responsibility towards society at large.

Had Phone Booth seen its original November release (delayed because of the real sniper shootings), it might have been lost in the holiday crowd. But with nothing else of much substance out right now, it has a chance at catching your interest, and maybe a better one than it deserves.

What's it worth? $6

Derek McCaw

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