Phone Booth

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, May 5, 2003


Spring may have sprung, but this remains a dark season for moviegoers. During most other times of the year, the small thriller "Phone Booth" could be overlooked without much loss. Yet, here in the shank of the movie year, between December's surfeit of Oscar hopefuls and the first summer blockbusters, this efficient film stands out for at least accomplishing most of its limited goals.

Thirty years ago, screenwriter Larry Cohen, the man behind some quasi-famous drive-in horror movies, was having lunch with Alfred Hitchcock. I gather that the conversation went about like this:

Cohen: Hey, I just thought of a great gimmick for a suspense movie: a man answers a ringing payphone and he can't hang up!

Sir Alfred: Why can't he hang up?

Cohen: Uh, well, let me get back to you on that

Twenty-five years later, Cohen came up with an answer: because the caller on the other end of the line is a sniper who threatens to shoot him if he walks away.

By then, unfortunately, Mr. Hitchcock was unavailable to direct "Phone Booth," having been dead for two decades. So, the movie wound up in the hands of Joel Schumacher.

This former window dresser, having blown a reported $110 million budget on 1997's franchise-killing campfest "Batman and Robin," has been working himself back into the movie industry's good graces with low budget films like "Tigerland." With only ten million dollars to spend on "Phone Booth," Schumacher couldn't indulge his taste for flamboyant bombast. He ended up with an 81 minute that moves fast and doesn't overstay its welcome.

"Phone Booth" is filmed in the PlayStation Mannerist style of last year's Owen Wilson war movie "Behind Enemy Lines." While earlier generations would pay extra to see gorgeous Technicolor films like "Lawrence of Arabia," young moviegoers now find movies featuring intentionally degraded image quality and dropped frames to be cool because they look like low-resolution video games and web cameras. Further, Schumacher unpredictably interjects fast and slow motion, a technique I've liked ever since the 1980 South African slapstick comedy "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

Cohen's screenplay, however, seems more like a foulmouthed version of a 1956 Rod Serling drama for CBS' live "Playhouse 90"anthology series. Few movies have ever observed more strictly Aristotle's prescribed theatrical unities of time (it's told roughly in real-time), place (almost all of it occurs around the phone booth), and action (no subplots, no flashbacks, no comic relief, no nothing).

Historically, Aristotle's unities proved unnecessary, but it's refreshing to watch them revived in an unlikely setting. Artists often work best under these kinds of artificial constraints.

The movie begins badly with a narrator virtually apologizing for this being a story about a pay phone in an age of cell phones. It quickly picks up, though, with Colin Farrell, playing a low rent publicist, striding through Times Square juggling cell phone calls as he tries to land his client, a diminutive white rapper even more obnoxious than he is, on a magazine cover through bluster and backstabbing.

"Phone Booth" was shot very quickly in late 2000. It was finally scheduled for release last fall, but then the Beltway Snipers became the biggest story of all time for a couple of weeks, so it was delayed again until now.

One of the minor mysteries of the last two years has been the tens of millions Hollywood has shoveled Farrell's way. Onscreen, he hasn't done much that's memorable. Offscreen, he has made himself a nuisance. So, what did the industry see in him that the outside world didn't?

Well, it now appears they'd seen his performance in early cuts of "Phone Booth." He's more good than great here, but, unlike his forgettable performance as an MIT valedictorian in last winter's "The Recruit," at least his role as a worthless sleazeball fits him like one of the flashy Italian suits his character wears. (Still, while the studios hope they've found the next Mel Gibson, I suspect they've got the next Rob Lowe.)

Personally, I'm so low on the publicity totem pole that hard-charging jerks like Farrell's character don't pester me. Most of the studio marketing people I deal with are pleasant and helpful young ladies and gay guys. Anyway, although the movie portrays him as desperately in need of confession and absolution, hustlers like this are so obviously insincere that they're more entertaining than pernicious to anyone with a three digit IQ.

Unfortunately, Kiefer Sutherland's portrayal of the sniper/caller with effetely excellent diction sounds embarrassingly like Kelsey Grammer voicing Bart Simpson's over-cultivated archnemesis Sideshow Bob. At least since the days of Vincent Price, American audiences have believed that fastidious articulation is the surest sign of a degenerate villain, and Sutherland's performance fully lives down to that stereotype.

Rated R for pervasive language and some violence.


Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.


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