|Written by Mel Odom|
|Friday, 01 June 2007|
On the surface, “Phone Booth” had the story conceit and the major star power to make a good movie. Add to that the seasoned directing of Joel Schumacher (who has several thrillers under his belt) and the scripting talent of Larry Cohen (author many television and movie scripts). In the end, though, it fails to meet some basic criteria for good storytelling and presentation.
The video and audio aspects for the film are amazing. The HD presentation is outstanding. Images take shape on the screen with vibrant color and hard edges. A three-dimensional quality about the film seems like viewers could just pull themselves into the scene with the actors. With the Lossless audio, the sounds are sharp and clear, and the surround sound system works perfectly. A movie as loaded with dialogue as this one is requires a stunning presentation to draw the jaded moviegoer’s attention, but “Phone Booth” delivers.
Schumacher directs with an unrelenting eye. He brings the viewer into his version of the Manhattan streets where Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) lives and lies as a public relations specialist. The grit, the adult book stores and strip joints, the hookers, the shops, and the casual traffic all feel right. Schumacher keeps the camera moving and even uses multiple screens to show added layers of the story and provide even more eye candy. The fact that this is all presented while Stu walks down the street and carries on three or four conversations more or less at the same time is mesmerizing. It’s almost like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion.
The story’s moment-by-moment movement sets up the pace and nails the viewer to the chair as the tension and the stakes ratchet up on the screen. Stu’s decision to pull off his wedding ring before calling Pamela (Katie Holmes) is given a lot of weight, and the viewer knows Stu’s moving into troubled waters, a true film noir giveaway because the flawed hero always makes a moral mistake that sets up the next events. He talks to Pam and tries to get her to meet him at the local hotel to “talk about her career,” but everyone knows the subtext is simpler than that. The strange part is that Katie Holmes took this role when a cardboard cutout could have served just as well. There’s no depth to her character, no explanation of what her skills might be that Stu wants to market. She seems almost like a placeholder for the ingénue about to get sucked into a web of treachery, only she’s never in harm’s way despite the sniper’s later threats.
After Pam turns down Stu’s offer, the phone rings. First of all, the viewer is presented with a phone booth in the middle of the block instead of one of the street corners, then there’s the incongruous element that Stu would stick around after being stood up by Katie, or that he would answer the phone when it rang. But he does answer the phone, and there’s a psychopath on the line.
Kiefer Sutherland (The Caller) has a pitch-perfect psychopath’s voice and no one would know it from the Jack Bauer character he plays in “24”. His maniacal laughter echoes perfectly through the surround sound as he talks to Stu and reveals all the knowledge he has of him and the lies he’s told. The laughter will remind Old Time Radio aficionados of the mocking laughter of The Shadow as voiced by Orson Welles.
But this is where the story and the movie start to fall apart. In swift, tension-charged scenes, the psychopath talks about his previous victims. A pedophile that never got brought up on charges, a Wall Street investor that helped bilk his clients of money, and others have gone down under the psychopath’s rifle. Stu is familiar with these events. According to the news stories, no one knows why the men were killed or who did it. Of course, viewers immediately start wondering why the killer is doing what he’s doing and why he’s motivated to go after these people. It’s part of the payoff on films like this. But the main question quickly becomes, how is Stu going to get out of the phone booth?
Unfortunately, the viewer never finds out why the killer is doing what he does. His motivation for stalking the people and killing them, his training to do so, his financial ability to do that are still unknown at the end of the movie. That just isn’t fair. Even though the viewer only invests an hour and fifteen minutes of his time to get through the movie and has a tense and anxious time doing it, he also hopes to get an explanation of the monster. That’s understood to be part of the package.
Radha Mitchell stars as Kelly Shepard, and this part is as much of a throwaway as Katie Holmes’s. She shows up at the right time and does the obligatory screaming and crying over Stu as he remains trapped inside the phone booth.
Forest Whitaker as Police Captain Ed Ramey is the only actor who really gets to act. Ramey comes onto the scene after Stu is accused of killing a pimp who was trying to get him out of the phone booth so the local prostitutes could use the phone. That plot point is somewhat confusing because the women came out of a strip joint that surely had phones in it. And in this day and age, why would they not have cell phones or message services to handle their business? Stu’s own reason for calling on the payphone is covered and makes sense, though he calls so many people, it’s unlikely his wife, even if motivated by extreme jealousy, would be able to pinpoint the number of a possible love interest. For one, Stu called Pam at work. And if she was a potential client, Stu would have a built-in excuse for calling.
Whitaker does a solid job of presenting his character, but there still isn’t much for him to work with. He has a couple of exchanges of dialogue that sets up tension, drama, and background. But even his argument with one of his support staff fades away at a convenient time.
In many ways “Phone Booth” is gripping. Streamlined to a sleek 75 minutes, the movie is easy to watch and gets wrapped up ahead of the psychological time limits viewers are trained to expect. However, there are so many unresolved questions and the lack of an explosive chase at the end of the film that most viewers will be left unfulfilled. The movie feels like it’s missing the final fifteen or twenty minutes, and the final reveal and resolution.
The fact that the commentary is the only worthwhile special feature takes away some of the attractiveness of the Blu-ray package. However, the Lossless audio and high-def video presentations are definite reasons for anyone who enjoyed the movie, is a confirmed Colin Farrell fan, or wants a quick movie to show off the home entertainment system to pick this one up.