It sounds like a low-budget idea for a Rolf de Heer special: a man trapped in a New York phone booth for virtually an entire film.
On the end of the line, after the fateful moment when Stu (Colin Farrell) dares pick up a ringing phone, is a brilliant, ice-cold killer. If Stu hangs up, he dies.
The anonymous caller knows many intimate details about Stu, who is a ruthless media consultant. It seems that Stu once treated badly this aspiring actor, brushing him off. And, through watching, the caller has pieced together the sordid reality of Stu's life, how he is flirting with Pamela (Katie Holmes) while lying to his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell).
Then the crowd gathers. There's Pamela and Kelly and the concerned cop, Ramey (Forest Whitaker), anxious to use reason rather than violence. Stu thinks he's safe, since he isn't armed. But then the caller tells him to reach up to a little gift hidden in the top of the booth.
Phone Booth is a blessed event for fans of the prolific writer-director of B movies, Larry Cohen (God Told Me To, 1977). Joel Schumacher (Falling Down, 1993) is in the director's chair, but he has done a fine job respecting the sensibility of Cohen's script, even though his resources are far greater than that which the B maestro usually enjoys.
The B movie ambience is enhanced by a Twilight Zone-style prologue which describes the telephone culture of New York. Cohen aficionados will be flashing back, throughout this movie, to the heightened visions of urban experience offered in Blind Alley (1984) and The Ambulance (1990).
Dropping his customary pretentiousness, Schumacher enjoys himself with computer-age picture windows opening up in the image to show us other characters, split screens, and a slick array of audiovisual tricks.
As always in a Cohen script, many themes are chewed up and spat out in record time: personal responsibility, urban paranoia, chance and destiny. Farrell does a splendid job in a role that allows him no room for charm. Obviously conceived as a modern counterpart to the slimy operators in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Stu is a fast-talking, manipulative scumbag who suddenly finds himself, for once, in the victim position.
Like many a B movie, Phone Booth depends on a final twist that will be cornily obvious to some viewers and a satisfying surprise to others. But, either way, the fun is not diminished. This is among the most playful and enjoyable movies to come out of a major Hollywood studio in a long, long time.
MORE Cohen: Guilty as Sin
© Adrian Martin May 2003