When Alfred Hitchcock made LIFEBOAT, it set a record as being the smallest set ever used for a film. A phone booth is smaller than a lifeboat still. Although, since the film PHONE BOOTH utilizes the area immediately outside of the phone booth, does it count? Well, that's one for the folks at Guinness to decide. Larry Cohen's tight script combined with Joel Schumacher's great direction (yes yes, we'll get to that) makes PHONE BOOTH seem as big as any big-budget thriller, with a brain thrown in for free.
In our world of cell phones (which the Sprint Nazis I used to work for insisted we call "digital handsets"), pay phones should be less and less common. However, a narration tells us that pay phones are still utilized in major cities, thousands of times each day, much to the delight of muggers.
Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell - DAREDEVIL, MINORITY REPORT) lives on his cell phone. He is a publicist who may not be as important as he pretends. He handles local talent, talking and charming his way into the hearts of clients and businesses that could help him advance. When Stu is pitching, it's art. I haven't heard a line of bull laid this far and wide since my last job interview. He is always selling, talking so fast and confidently, he leaves Jerry Maguire in the dust.
Although he uses his cell like most people use air, he steps into a phone booth every day to call Pam (Katie Holmes ? GO, WONDER BOYS), one of his more beautiful and na�ve clients. He is interested in the alluring woman and lays on the flirtatious jive as he considers whether or not he is going to bed her. He is sneaky enough to use the pay phone so his wife (Radha Mitchell - PITCH BLACK, HIGH ART) won't see the telltale number on his cell phone bill. He is ashamed enough to remove his wedding ring before dialing Pam's number.
After he hangs up, the pay phone rings again. Sometimes when you see a ringing phone, you just have to answer it. It's a knee-jerk reaction. Stu answers the phone. A voice on the other end (Keifer Sutherland) tells him he has a gun pointed at him. If Stu leaves the phone booth, he will kill him. The cocking of the rifle and a red light on his chest proves that the caller isn't lying.
The rest of the film takes place entirely in the phone booth and the area immediately surrounding it. Little by little, the caller plays mind games with Stu. He knows all about Stu and he wants him to confess his sins. What sins? Stu is going to have to figure that out for himself. The cocky exterior slowly dissolves and shows how insecure Stu really is.
Larry Cohen's script has been languishing on the shelf for no good reason other than no one has had the balls to film it. Just about everyone who read the script loved it, but shied away from the subject matter. After all, how do you make a guy talking on a phone interesting for a full-length movie? Both Will Smith and Jim Carrey considered the lead, only to pass.
Remarkably even the king of style over substance, Michael Bay was attached. On a recent episode of THE DAILY SHOW, Farrell told of how Bay sat in on the first script meeting. He loved the script and wanted to do it. His first question, "How soon can we get him out of the phone booth?" And this, Mr. Bay, is why you should never be allowed to pick up a camera again.
So, who steps into the spotlight? Joel Schumacher, arguably the most despised big-budget director around. Schumacher got under people's skin a while back with some of his other films. But the colossal bomb, BATMAN & ROBIN was the shot heard around the world. A 150 million dollar disaster, everyone involved either distanced themselves from the film or paid the price with their careers. Everyone, save for Schumacher. He was still making films, although they were much more suspect and much less successful. 8MM could have been good if they didn't add so many crazy plotpoints and expect us to swallow the snuff myth hook, line and sinker. BAD COMPANY was simply bad, marketing itself as a comedy and action film, never deciding which it was. With a title that just begged to be ridiculed, FLAWLESS wasn't.
In the middle of this came TIGERLAND, a film many still haven't seen. It's a fantastic anti-war film about a saint-like man who tries to get a number of young people out of the Army and out of Vietnam. An unlikely story of courage in the face of death. It starred an unknown Irish actor, Colin Farrell, who turned in one of the most intriguing performances that year. A low-budget film with mostly unknowns, it showed that Schumacher does not always drop the ball. But it's frustrating how often he does.
So it's a good idea that for PHONE BOOTH, he brings in the people from his two best films - Farrell from TIGERLAND and Sutherland from FLATLINERS (hey, I love it). As someone who revels in the sin of spin, Farrell turns in his best performance yet. In the first four months of 2003, this was his third movie (after THE RECRUIT and DAREDEVIL. S.W.A.T. will be released this summer and another Schumacher film, VERONICA GUERIN is expected in the fall - yikes!). He has given a different and more assured performance in each one. When I heard Sutherland was on board as the caller, I wondered if it was the right choice. Surely someone like David Cronenberg would have given the right menace. Maybe, but Sutherland does a fine job, and furthers his lucrative career in voice work. He is every bit a character as Farrell, even as a disembodied voice. Plus after his excellent work on 24, it's nice to see Keifer put someone through the longest day of their lives for a change.
You'd expect Schumacher to keep things small, given the confined location. But the first surprise of the film is that he makes a daring decision, filming the film in a 2.35 aspect ratio. I'm a sucker for big obnoxious scope and this is big obnoxious scope for a small little B-thriller. He gets around the confined space by using enough camera tricks to keep things interesting but not enough so as to distract from the story. He employs are great use of split-screen and window effects. When Forest Whitaker, who after PANIC ROOM turns in yet another exceptional performance in an underrated thriller, shows up as a negotiator, it adds to the suspense instead of taking away from the action. I didn't even mind the saturated color or use of the shutter cam.
Although the action runs the film, PHONE BOOTH is a story of redemption. Stu gets a slap in the face as the caller basically asks, "Who do you think you are?" Who has Stu wronged and why? It's what he spends the whole film finding out and atoning for. None of this feels nearly as contrived as it all sounds. After all, we often admit our sins, even to ourselves, only when we have a gun to our heads.
More than anything else, PHONE BOOTH is a testament to Larry Cohen's talent as a screenwriter. At a short 81 minutes, the script is the perfect length for what the film sets out to accomplish. It manages to convey suspense better than anything I've seen in months. The drama is handled incredibly well, not acting as a subplot, but perfectly melding itself into the storyline as a crucial element to how things are going to turn out.
Although the year is young, PHONE BOOTH is the best film I've seen so far in 2003. It's a short but thrilling ride that is fun while it lasts, but also successful in creating several haunting questions to bug you for days to come.