By Rick Kisonak | September 13, 2004

When veteran screenwriter Larry Cohen comes upon an idea that sells, he sticks with it. He came up with the premise for Phone Booth, the 2003 thriller in which a psycho traps Colin Farrell in a Manhattan pay phone. Now he’s collaborated with director David R. Ellis on “Cellular”, a thriller in which psychos trap Kim Basinger in an attic and her survival hinges on a stranger she’s able to contact. Anyone care to bet Cohen’s not this very moment banging out a thriller about e-mail or pagers? I can see the poster now: “Vin Diesel Reaches Out and Saves Someone in Beeper.”

The idea in this one is Basinger’s a high school science teacher whose Brentwood mansion is invaded one morning by violent thugs who shoot her maid and take her hostage. Once they’ve stashed her in an old attic, it becomes clear the gang wants something from her husband and intends to use her to get it. There’s a wall phone in the attic and the bad guys wait to smash it with a baseball bat until after Basinger’s arrival. If they had simply removed it in advance, it turns out, nothing which follows in the film could have occurred.

Being a science teacher, Basinger is able to piece enough of the device back together and click just the right wires in order to make a random connection to another phone. It happens to be the cell phone of a generic twentysomething dude played by “Not Another Teen Movie”‘s Chris Evans. At first he doesn’t believe his caller has really been abducted and is about to be killed. He even puts her on hold. Eventually, however, Basinger persuades him to drive to the nearest police station and hand the phone to a cop.

William H. Macy tosses off the movie’s most interesting performance in the role of a 27 year veteran who plans to retire and open a day spa with his wife. He happens to be manning the front desk when Evans walks in. Macy listens to the kidnapped woman for a minute but then, wouldn’t you know it, a melee breaks out in the next room and he rushes off referring the young man to the homicide department on the fourth floor.

Cellular’s plot runs on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of such tension building delay tactics. In this case, Evans runs up a stairwell and finds that the higher he climbs, the weaker his signal becomes. He can’t afford to lose that lifeline and so is forced to turn around even as the division’s office comes into view.

Next it’s back into his Jeep and off to pick up Basinger’s little boy at school before the bad guys can. Wouldn’t you know it: He gets a low battery reading and is forced to make a pit stop at a mobile phone store to pick up a charger. Wouldn’t you know it: The clerks are condescending and the lines are out the door. Wouldn’t you know it, though, by this point Evans is driving a stolen car and has found a handgun in the glove compartment. Nothing like firearms to get you a little courteous service sometimes.

And on and on it goes, twisting toward the point where our unlikely hero will save the day but then turning at the last second into the next on the script’s long checklist of tragedies. One on hand, the film’s superficially effective as a wind up, what’s-gonna-happen-next contraption that engages in places despite a dependence on Hollywood chase cliches. You just knew that, at some point, the kid was going to have to speed through one way traffic going the wrong way.

On the other, the movie crosses the line between offering mindless entertainment and insulting our intelligence. Almost every plot development is completely preposterous. It turns out, for example, that Basinger’s husband knew the bad guys were coming for her. So, what’s he do? He calls home from the office and LEAVES HER A MESSAGE! No flurry of calls. No husbandly rescue attempt. No heads up to the police. Come on.

Equally ludicrous is the fact that Evans never thinks to look to the police for assistance after his aborted visit to the station. He just keeps stealing cars and streaking down the street now and then leaving his vehicle long enough to take on a bunch of steroid cases the size of Green Bay’s offensive line. As unintentionally funny as those scenes are, my favorites have to be the ones in which he speaks to Basinger while driving with both hands on the wheel. Back to back shots have him holding the phone to his ear one second and then talking into thin air the next.

Of course, this is the sort of hit and miss piffle studios always unload in late summer. No big surprise there. What stunned me though, I have to say, was the review of the film written by Roger Ebert in which he declared the picture “one of the year’s best thrillers,” made such questionable statements as “The movie is skillfully plotted” and “The movie’s surprises mostly seem to make sense” and gave it three and a half stars out of four. Having been attracted to film criticism by the Pulitzer winner’s example, I’ve watched with increasing concern as his judgment has grown iffier in recent years. I have no idea whether health problems he’s faced have played a role or not but this sort of thing has become alarmingly common. Hopefully his next one will prove more in touch with reality because his take on Cellular was one bad call.

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