Phonebooth (2003)

D: Joel Schumacher
S: Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland\

Amoral, manipulative publicist Colin Farrell (Minority Report) enjoys a casual flirt on the side even though he is married. In the course of an ordinary day, he pops into his usual phonebooth to make a call to his latest prospect, an aspiring actress. He then becomes the target of an even more manipulative character, a sniper with a twisted sense of conscience (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, currently enjoying a major career boost on television with 24). The sniper keeps him trapped in the phonebooth, killing those who attempt to intervene. His aim is to force him to confront his hypocrisy by telling the truth to his wife. Meanwhile the police are called in, led by intelligent but conflicted Forest Whittaker (Panic Room), convinced Farrell himself is the shooter.

What this story is doing on the big screen is anyone's guess, but here it is. In truth there is not much to say about it in that its themes of guilt and conscience (with some asides about 'communicaton' and technology) are there for all to see and handled just about as well as they can be under the circumstances. It is amazing that Phonebooth gets away with stretching a twenty minute short idea into a feature film without managing to feel stretched. It is less surprising that the film is not a particularly substantial feature, and that when it is over the audience is bound to feel undernourished. Still, screenwriter Larry Cohen and director Joel Schumacher have done a remarkable job with the kind of project which is usually done by fledgling directors fresh out of college with a 'hot' idea.

The film has the restless energy of a low budget effort, but is done with the professional sheen befitting the resources available to its makers. Schumacher, a craftsman of some ability, has been in overdrive since the still unforgivable travesty of Batman and Robin, while Larry Cohen is one of the most experienced schlock writer/directors in the business (operating above the level of Troma productions, that is). It is a weird combination, but it seems to have worked.

Cohen has paced the story so that the events which transpire feel neither forced nor thinly spread. He has come up with a script which is inventive yet believable within its own frames of reference. Only a bizarrely pointless opening voice over seems like padding. Schumacher amuses himself by finding ways to keep the image on the move in spite of the confined physical locations. It is testament to his skill and experience that the film never seems static, though it must be said that it isn't really all that claustrophobic either, which it probably should have been.

The movie rests heavily on the performance of Irish actor Farrell, and he does a pretty good job of sustaining a sweaty but relatively controlled sense of mounting tension. There are no fascinating asides or moments of thespian pause which leave the audience tantalised as to the potential depths of the character, but then there aren't any in the script either. It is not an electrifying or revelatory performance, but it suits the film.

Support from Whittaker is also good, though he is helped by a script which is more respectful to the NYPD than a genre picture has been in some time. The character's sensitivities are not exploited and the actor gets to respond with a mixture of human emotion and professionalism which elicits considerable sympathy. Sutherland's voice is not always as menacing as it seems intended to be, and though the anal retentive in me wonders why a voice over the phone should come out in crystal clear Dolby surround, there isn't really enough range to the actor's vocal modulation to plump the depths of suspense of good radio drama.

The film comes to a fairly contrived conclusion after holding itself relatively well in check throughout, and it finishes with a silly coda which belongs in an after school special from The Twilight Zone. That said, it is all that can be expected, and from its opening right through to the end, Phonebooth delivers on its fairly mild promises. Casual viewers might get the most from it, though the ideal viewing environment is probably on network television on an evening when your brain in neutral gear.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.