Phone Booth (2002) ** 3/4
Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Larry Cohen. Photography, Matthew Libatique. Produced by Gil Netter & David Zucke. Editing, Mark Stevens.Production design, Andrew Laws. Music, Harry Gregson-Williams. Cast : Colin Farrell (Stu Shepard), Kiefer Sutherland (the Caller), Forest Whitaker (Captain Ramey), Radha Mitchell (Kelly Shepard), Katie Holmes (Pamela McFadden), Paula Jai Parker (Felicia) and John Enos III (Leon). A Fox 2000 release. 81 minutes. R.
Going for it, the film has its 81 minute length, in fact only about 76 minutes before the end-credits roll; its relative non-boredom; some "wow!" visuals; a good performance by Colin Farell. The Irish actor, then 24, got his true debut in popularity in "Tigerland" (Fall 2000) which was directed by "Phone Booth's" Joel Schumacher. Mr.Farrell is in significant demand these days. Going against it are several plot holes. They, however, become a liability mostly when the film is recollected in tranquility.
The movie's opening movie introduces us to Stuart Shepard (Farrell) who is a Manhattan publicist, a fast-talking, unscrupulous, go-getting hustler who will do anything to promote his career. He also practices the old Roman tactic of Divide and Conquer. The vivid, rapid-fire preamble shows wearing Armani or Dolce & Gabanna, walking and talking up a storm in the streets, conducting business (not always ethically), juggling at least two cellphones. He is followed slavishly by a young, overawed and underpaid apprentice/assistant.
For experienced movie-buffs there is an inevitable comparison with Tony Curtis as Sid Falco in the terrific "The Sweet Smell of Success" of 1957. Falco was an unscrupulous publicity agent. He toadied to mega-gossip columnist Burt Lancaster who was obviously modeled after the dreaded, real-life Walter Winchell.
Stu is a born wheeler-dealer, expert at robbing Peter to pay Paul. He also cheats on his wife who, unbelievably, is unaware of this. His latest female target (and client) is a would-be actress who apparently has not reached yet the horizontal position on the casting couch -- but is about to. (The relationship is a bit fuzzy.)
To call her, Stu avoids his cell phones so that Mrs. Stu won't see their record on the bills (another ho-hum aspect of the film.) He calls the paramour-to-be from a public phone instead. The movie spells out that this is the last phone booth left in Manhattan. The booth is in a convincingly staged simulacrum of its New York corner location (8th Ave.), a place surrounded by buildings with hundreds of windows. It is also surrounded by Class D , raucous and blatant prostitutes who use the phone for business. (Why they have no cell phones, like everybody else is left unexplained.)
With Stu in the booth, the phone rings. He answers it. No, it not an offer to subscribe to The New Yorker, but a call from a mysterious character - I'll refer to him as X-- with excellent elocution. He is contacting Stu, whose life, personality, tactics and all else X knows by heart (how? another mystery in a story with enough holes to qualify as Swiss cheese.) X wants Stu to make a public confession of his misdeeds. If he hangs up or leaves the booth, X, who, from one of the sea of windows, has him in the sights of powerful rifle, will kill him. X confirms the reality of this by shooting dead the prosties' pimp as that man tries to force-enter the phone cabin. It's a tight, life-or-death setup which gets worse when the police appear in huge numbers, believing that it was Stu who killed the pimp.
I will not go into details, give away developments and disclose if, how and when Stu comes up with his forced "mea culpa." But I must state that the disembodied caller, no doubt a major sicko, has a fine voice, handles the English language well, shows a literate man's sense of irony and humor, keeps you on your seat though not necessarily its edge. Even so the viewer's suspension of disbelief must function non-stop. The caller is a clever addition to the gallery of movie madmen. He seems to be an educated Lethal Joker. He plays well his cat and mouse game, indeed, his cat and rat game, and how to make Stu stew in his own juice.
An interesting aspect is the top of Mr, Farrell's head. First on the street, then inside the booth, his noticeable shock of hair is a carefully crafted casual coiffure. As anxiety escalates, dishevelment sets in. Now, when I caught Mr. Farrell in a television interview, his hairdo was a display of spikes worthy of a rock musician though not as soigné as those of hedgehogs in Ireland featured in a New York Times story the same day I saw the movie. Everybody to his taste.
The cinematography is first-rate, with supple cameras, split screens, complex tracking shots and multiple visual patterns which match the psychological ones.
Though the film was finished in 2002 its release was delayed because of the DC-area's snipers' rampage.