A tremendous disappointment, Phone Booth starts out as a turn-the-screws thriller before seeking deeper meaning through psychobabble where it really, really, really does not belong.
The film works from a nifty premise. Smarmy New York publicist Stu Shepherd (Colin Farrell) is trapped in a phone booth, targeted and manipulated by a cackling sniper (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), who will kill him if he hangs up and walks away. But when it should be rolling like a freight train, it’s more like a handcar, straining to move down the track and burdened by the weight of its so-called themes.
B-movie hack screenwriter Larry Cohen tries to abstractly connect constant phone chatter with the erosion of honesty in this country. But he does so in a movie that should just be a pulpy thriller about a nut-job and his prey.
His cohort, director Joel Schumacher, here reinforces his rep that 90 percent of the time he’s a hack. Does it really take 30-some shots of people yapping on cell phones to get across that we’re completely connected as a society? Thank you, though, Joel, for then giving us the omnipotent narration about cell-phone usage in America. We really didn’t get it before.
After this too-long set-up, Stu finally enters the phone booth, where he calls a pretty young actress (Katie Holmes) whom he’d like to represent in a more intimate way despite already being married. After hanging up with her, the phone rings, he picks it up, and thus begins the verbal cat-and-mouse.
For the next 20 minutes, Phone Booth works the thriller playbook but does it well, establishing intriguing conflict inside and outside of the booth. A trio of hookers, who use the booth for “business,” want Stu out, and Schumacher generates strong tension as the situation escalates to include their burly pimp.
The pimp’s exit from the story certainly drives the plot forward, but it mires Phone Booth’s enjoyment as a thriller in a swamp of stupidity and questions.
Just why would the police take as gospel the word of three hookers? Why doesn’t Stu’s wife volunteer a crucial bit of information to the police earlier, and furthermore, why won’t she just stay in the darn police car? Obliterated logic happens even in great thrillers, but even at a tight 81 minutes, Phone Booth’s lifeless patches force you to contemplate these things.
With their back-and-forth, Farrell and Sutherland provide the only real consistent quality in the film. A grade-A movie star, Farrell has as much conviction and passion as one can while talking into a handset. And Sutherland’s velvety menace gives an edge to the juicier moments of Cohen’s script.
Their good acting, though, can’t overcome the sense that something’s missing like, say, the ability to relate to any character in the movie. Farrell’s climactic confession, though well delivered, doesn’t mean squat because we know nothing about his marriage. And he’s been targeted for what, mimicking Jimmy Carter and lusting in his heart?
Tack on a completely bogus, obvious and idiotically filmed resolution (what’s with the swimmy camera moves?), and Phone Booth is a movie completely disconnected from what suspense should be like.