Bad Connection

Ill-conceived and anything but claustrophobic, `Phone Booth' is a mess from the word hello.

April 04, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Writer Larry Cohen and director Joel Schumacher are moviemaking veterans, but the only question their new movie raises is: How many bad undergraduate ideas can you stuff in a phone booth? In Phone Booth, Colin Farrell plays a New York City publicist who merrily hypes his clients by any means necessary, whether maneuvering slick-mag editors against each other to win a cover or lying to Page Six to plant an item. Before you can say "Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success," a sniper pins him down in the title booth and makes Farrell look as though he's a murderer. Soon, under the thumb and trigger-finger of the sniper, Farrell publicly admits lies he told his wife (Radha Mitchell) and a gullible young actress (Katie Holmes), both of whom come to the scene. He also tries to signal sympathetic police captain Forest Whitaker that the true culprit is the rifleman on the other end of the phone line.

In big ways as well as small, the moviemakers contort themselves right off the bat: A narrator must explain that Farrell occupies the last real glass-walled phone booth standing in Manhattan. (Cohen was thinking of this story for 20 years; pay-phone kiosks replaced booths long before film rolled.) The filmmakers never back up their notions that tension will increase the more they limit the man's wiggle-room - and that using a rifle-sight to focus on him for 80 minutes will force him to reveal some inner truth that will resonate with us all.

With split-screen editing and four cameras catching the action in the booth and all around it, Schumacher keeps the visual elements lively. But he doesn't play Beat the Clock as well as the makers of TV's similarly jagged-edged 24, and he fails to impose a formal, disciplined style that might have exacted optimum creepiness from the claustrophobic setup. Cohen's script actually telegraphs and then dilutes any mysteries to be found in Farrell's anti-hero. From the moment the publicist removes his wedding ring when he calls Holmes, you guess the source of his first humiliation. And not even the resourceful, energetic Farrell - he sweats as much as Frank Sinatra did in The Manchurian Candidate - can bring unsuspected revelations to this shallow man's climactic confession of, well, shallowness.

The moviemakers think they inject some acid irony when good-cop Whitaker figures out Farrell's plight and gets all psycho-babbly for the benefit of the sniper - who then considers killing the cop for acting like a bad version of Oprah.

But the performances are too one-note and the movie alternately too frenzied and too frail to support irony. And the sniper remains shadowy, or maybe Shadow-y - he knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and targets only sleazes. (Anyone who gets in the way is collateral damage.) Is he a psychopath or an avenging angel? In an odd, off-putting audio choice, Schumacher lets the sniper deliver his running commentary without any noise, distortion or change in volume, as if the viewer were hearing it on hi-fi headphones. Kiefer Sutherland brings his resonant rasp to this voice role (the script keeps the sniper off-screen), but the effect isn't eerie or intimate - it's lulling.

Phone Booth may not be awful, but it's puny. You'd be better off waiting for Pixar or The Ice Age team to do the animal-cartoon version: Fish Bowl.

Phone Booth

Starring Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes, Radha Mitchell and Kiefer Sutherland

Directed by Joel Schumacher

Rated R

Released by 20th Century Fox

Time 90 minutes

Sun score **

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