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Call of the Dialed 

A ringing phone must be answered. That's the simple premise of Phone Booth, an intriguing idea in a world where immediate access is the stuff of life and caller ID and answering machines are for those screener freaks. As a nation, we couldn't possibly get more wired -- but just what exactly is it that we are wired for? Lay that most existential of questions over any number of intertwining dichotomies -- good vs. evil, public vs. private, appearance vs. reality -- and you have the moral discussion that Phone Booth aspires to be. Too bad that, like most of the unfortunate Hollywood cinema pretending to illuminate the modern human condition, this Joel Schumacher-helmed movie falls short. The call just doesn't quite go through, despite star Colin Farrell's best efforts to make a connection.

New Yorker Stu Shepard (Farrell) is a smooth operator. He's a small-time PR guy, well-connected to all his fellow small-time players. A fast talker and a quick wit, Stu's the kind of guy who's always got the next big thing holding on the other line -- or, at least, he's willing to create that impression. He tells a thousand harmless lies a day, shrugging off anyone lower on the food chain and effortlessly constructing an illusion of cool. He loves his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell), but shamelessly flirts with Pam, a young actress he reps (Katie Holmes); he toys with the idea of an affair, calling her every day from the same phone booth so Kelly won't see the calls on his cell phone bill. He's a magician and a master juggler -- he's made. Until, that is, that pay phone rings and he turns back to pick it up.

The voice on the other end (Kiefer Sutherland) knows a lot about Stu and his life. He also knows how to use a high-powered rifle. Stu hangs up, he dies. Stu refuses to play by the rules, he dies. When this sniper picks off a bystander, the cops think Stu is the gunman, and, in short order, Kelly and Pam show up at the scene, drawn by local TV coverage. The stand-off (not to mention the mindf--k) has begun. The voice, it seems, is an avenging angel, intent on turning this phone booth into a street-corner confessional for all of Stu's largely unoriginal sins.

Young Mr. Shepard proves a worthy adversary. True to form, he tries to work the voice in the void, bullying him and calling his bluff; later, he tries to play him, laundry-listing the things he can do (and get) for him. But, as he soon discovers, such work and play will only make Stu a very dead boy. It's just that honesty isn't an attribute he's accessed lately, and he thinks he's as smart as he knows he is scared. Stu's got to learn to think outside his box.

When the ending comes down, it comes down fast. Too fast, actually, and much too clean. Screenwriter Larry Cohen, who noodled the idea of a phone booth stand-off for decades, has proudly ball-parked his Phone Booth writing time, once he got the green light, at about a week. It shows. The script, while not altogether unintelligent, makes a few too many leaps of logic, merely sketches out ancillary characters and peters out early. Not necessarily known for his directorial nuance, Schumacher (two bad Batman movies, 8MM) manages to keep a tunnel-vision movie visually interesting most of the time, although he does occasionally go gimmicky and clutter up the screen. His heavy hand is almost forgiven, however, because he has so little to work with. A washed-out palette and creative set direction (the phone booth stands before two giant ads: one for a fragrance named "Penance," the other positing the question "Who do you think you are?") create a comfortable illusion of profundity, sadly shattered when the story doesn't arc so much as tank.

Still, Phone Booth serves as a coming-out party, a real wake-up call announcing a young Irish actor's considerable presence -- and prowess. No doubt, this Farrell cat is one cinematic creature. There aren't many young actors who could give so compelling a performance in so claustrophobic a setting. The film's successes, and they are considerable, are due to his ability to absolutely rivet the audience and then slowly ratchet up the tension, all by his lonesome. His transformation from a frenetic, finger-snapping know-it-all to a sweaty, walking nervous tic is as close to a tour de force as a neophyte film actor gets.

Farrell's made an impression before in box-office fare such as Minority Report and Daredevil, garnering highest praise for his performance as the reluctant hero of 2000's Tigerland (also directed by Schumacher). Where that film gave him quiet cachet, Phone Booth pumps up the volume.

Can you hear him now? You'd better.

click to enlarge Colin Farrell finds himself trapped in Phone - Booth and undergoes a transformation that - rivals Superman's.
  • Colin Farrell finds himself trapped in Phone Booth and undergoes a transformation that rivals Superman's.


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