Phone Booth (2003) — Kids, ask your parents what these were

“Wrong number, pal.”

PoolMan’s rating: So why didn’t he just throw a paper clip into the open window?

PoolMan’s review: What, are you kidding?

Phone Booth is the kind of movie you really can’t believe got made in the first place. An overblown publicist named Stu Shepard (Farrell) is on his daily ritual of calling a girl he’s been thinking of cheating with (Pam, played by Katie Holmes) from the last phone booth in a particular neighbourhood in New York. It turns out he’s been followed and observed by an unseen stalker (The Caller, an elusively voiced Kiefer Sutherland), who has picked today to call Stu in the booth and keep him pinned there with a high powered rifle from an overlooking window.

After killing a pimp to make it look like Stu did it, the Caller proceeds to drag Stu’s morals over the coals as he offers Stu a choice: confess the many sins of his life to his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), or die under either the Caller’s or the police’s bullet. If Stu leaves the booth, the Caller will shoot him. If Stu stays in the booth against the police’s orders, the law grows ever closer to killing him. The only way out is for Stu to confess his adulterous thoughts and the other poor choices he’s made in life to his waiting wife and a nation watching the live news coverage.

Now. Take a step back and consider what this all means. The story requires that most of the action take place in exactly the same spot: in or near the booth. It requires that the main character be alone onscreen for the majority of the flick. And it also means that the antagonist, the Caller, can only express himself using his voice and gunshot. This would be why I’m so amazed this movie got the greenlight. It requires tight direction, and a running time that won’t wear the audience out (an unbelievably short 81 minutes). But most of all it absolutely demands very high caliber acting.

Colin Farrell delivers. Most of what makes this movie a success is the acting is very well done. Stu runs the gamut of the emotional spectrum, from disbelief and humour to the initial setup by the Caller, to rage and fear at his persecution, to utter despair at what he must confess to survive (all the while speaking in an accent that effectively hides Colin’s Irish heritage). Farrell really does deserve attention for this role, it’s pretty damn good. At only 27 years of age and with a career that only dates back seven years, he’s already showing signs of real superstar quality. Sutherland also lends considerable weight with just his vocal cords on his side. The voice of the Caller is dark, taunting, and unforgiving, with so much malice you’ll question over and over again what could have brought him to this. And Forest Whitaker even takes a pretty good turn as the negotiator who tries to bring Stu out of the booth. Watching the back and forth between Stu and Captain Ramey is pretty good.

The movie really does deliver enough tension to keep it all afloat. Stu naturally resists every threat the Caller makes until it’s made clear how much power the Caller has over him. But playing by the Caller’s game doesn’t free him, and so he and the audience are left to guess: is there even a way out? More than once are you left with the sincere belief that this is it, this the moment where the Caller shoots. And he does shoot…

Unfortunately, the movie has an end. I say that with two meanings. First, it’s a good flick, you’ll be sorry to see the end of it (and it’s one of those that’s probably best the first or second time around). Second, the moment it’s over and you’re free of the weight of the story, you’ll immediately start punching holes in it. There are so many questions that come to light. Primarily, even though Stu asks the question of the Caller, it’s never really satisfactorily explained how Stu is an evil enough person to warrant this punishment (which already befallen a crooked CEO and a pedophile). Stu’s maybe not the nicest guy, but he’s really only guilty of being deceitful. Heck, it’s even established right away that he hasn’t even slept with the “other woman,” just that he was thinking about it.

Even moving beyond this fatal flaw in the story, there are a lot of nits to pick. What is the pizza guy’s real involvement? Who the heck is the Caller, and what’s his true motivation, anyway? It seems to change momentarily! When the tension has drained away, there’s an awful lot of explaining that this movie doesn’t do. Some of it’s justified, some of it makes no sense at all. In a movie with really only two major characters, you better be darn sure of what both their motivating factors are.

Still, this is all said with the realization that this movie is actually pretty good. In the moment, you’ll be held hostage every bit as much as Stu, and that’s the key. Just don’t tear it apart too badly after the credits run. If we were waiting for Colin Farrell to give us a sign that he’s truly entrenched in the annals (that’s ANNALS, Kyle) of Hollywood history, I think it’s pretty much here.

Kyle’s rating: Not to date myself (no one else will!) but do kids even know what a phone booth is?

Kyle’s review: This is a movie where my best recommendation is to see the preview for it, consider the poster and the cast involved, and let your imagination run wild. But never, no matter what, actually see the film. Otherwise you’d realize that once again, a movie has been made that arguably could have been at the very least fun and at most really cool and suspenseful, but as it stands is merely forgettable and dumb. Dang!

While I reading about the hassles Phone Booth went through just to get made (and I do read about that stuff, it’s fun!), my reactions would vary. “Well, they should make it because it could be cool!” warped to “Wait, he’s in the booth for the whole movie? That sucks!” and became “Man, you mean the only thing I can buy a ticket for is Phone Booth? Alright, one student, please.”

See, Kiefer Sutherland is awesome (see: TV’s 24, The Lost Boys) and Colin Farrell is okay, so it should be worth an afternoon viewing (I thought). The specter of Joel Schmacher and the abomination he turned the Batman franchise into loomed, of course, but maybe he’s changed! Maybe things are different now! Maybe I should splurge and buy a $8 small bag of popcorn! I’m never getting into a phone booth, ever! Thank God for cell phones!

Sorry, I went crazy there. But that’s the only crazy thing you’re going to find related to Phone Booth, because it’s all pretty sedate and tedious. For me, there was absolutely no tension whatsoever. I had no fear about what would happen, and I think it’s because we didn’t just stay with Farrell in the booth. Once we were getting those split screens Poolman hated and we became privy to what the cops were thinking and doing, any hope of edge-of-the-seat fun flew out the window.

The set-up to Phone Booth was pretty neat, and Sutherland’s voice is alternately one of the coolest and scariest naturally-occurring wonders of the world. But I just didn’t feel that the secret sniper passing judgment on random dudes of various badness was explored as much as it could have been, but I also believe that in the hands of a different director this could have been very nail-biting and taunt. I also believe I deserve credit for not being like the other 1000 movie reviewers out there, and somehow working in a dig at how Schumacher put nipples on the Bat-suit. Sometimes my personal restraint surprises even me.

Farrell is very convincing and charming to watch. Sutherland is incredible, no matter what particular singular sense he’s playing to. The chicks are hot, so that’s nice. But for all the potential shenanigans and building that goes into Phone Booth, once the credits roll you will be thinking “I hope that doesn’t happen to me!” but you won’t mean the sniper stuff: you’ll mean having to sit through a disappointing movie like this one again. It’s kind of worth seeing, I guess, but only as a rental and I’m telling you: your own imaginative nightmares about this scenario are going to be much more entertaining and frightening than Phone Booth could ever hope to be. Although if for any reason Kiefer Sutherland calls you on the phone, even if you’re his friend or it’s a wrong number or something, you should immediately start screaming and run away, crying your eyes out. I bet he would really get a kick out of that!

Didja notice?

  • The effectiveness of the bug seems to vary a lot.
  • Robot go bye bye!
  • The Caller berates Stu for believing him when he says he’s a Vietnam vet, because he would have to be “almost 50 by now”. Call me crazy, but all I could really discern from the Caller’s voice is that he wasn’t a teenager.
  • SPOILER [highlight to read]: At the end, the Caller assures the drugged Stu that he’ll be watching him to make sure he sticks to his confession. But moments before the standoff ended, it was made clear that the Caller didn’t actually care whether Stu actually confessed or not. What’s with the contradiction?
  • Split screens… yecch.
  • The Eminem lookalike in the limo was hilarious.
  • Although the film is set in New York, it was filmed in LA. In the scene when we see news reporters arriving, there is a shot of a female reporter in the bottom left of the screen. An LA public transport bus can bee seen passing by in the background.

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