Just exactly how has Joel Schumacher earned a place atop Hollywood’s line up of A list directors? A guy comes to a meeting and admits responsibility for the Mr. T vehicle “DC Cab,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” along with “Dying Young” and studio execs say, “Oh please do helm a couple of Batman sequels. And, when you get a second, how about this years-in-the-making thriller concerning a fellow trapped in a phone booth by a sniper?” The filmmaker must be related to someone real important. Or at least have incriminating photos of them.
Sure, he’s made a decent film or two: “Falling Down” and…OK, sure, he’s made a decent film. But so have hundreds of other filmmakers. I find it difficult to understand why Schumacher’s even considered commercially viable at this point. Must have something to do with the fact that, despite the reality that his movies usually suck, he somehow manages to lure commercially viable talent. “Flatliners” featured a young Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland. More recently, Flawless teamed Philip Seymour Hoffman with Robert De Niro and still went virtually straight to video. Is there even one other director dead or alive who’s succeeded in getting “De Niro” and “straight to video” into the same sentence?
“Phone Booth” was scheduled to hit theaters months ago when the exploits of the DC snipers put it on hold. Perennially on-the-verge-of-superstardom Irish import Colin Farrell plays a fast talking, self impressed publicist. We watch early on as he does a little razzle dazzle with his cell phone juggling a couple of magazine editors and snagging a cover shot for one of his clients. In a matter of minutes, he’s speed dialed two others into a mention in a society column and a party at an exclusive nightspot. The character’s supposed to come off as an obnoxious poser but, I don’t know, he seemed efficient enough to me.
Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t think quite so highly of him. He costars as a sinister figure with nothing better to do than follow people around, eavesdrop on their mobile phone conversations until they reveal indiscretions or unethical acts and then target them from his apartment window like an avenging angel with a high powered rifle and scope.
He knows, for example, that Farrell is married, but stops into the same booth at the same time most days to place a call to a young woman he’s priming for an affair. When Farrell hangs up after making the call on this particular day, the phone rings and he picks it up. For the next hour or so, Sutherland keeps him on the line confronting him with ugly truths about himself and threatening to pull the trigger if he tries to leave or tell anyone what’s happening.
And that causes problems when someone nearby does get shot, witnesses assume Farrell is responsible and police show up. Forest Whitaker is the cop whose job is to talk the increasingly frazzled publicist out of the booth. Initially he can’t figure out what to make of his suspect who refuses to get off the phone or reveal who’s on the other end of the line and the film’s suspense arises from the question as to whether he’ll be able to put the pieces together before the sniper or one of his own sharp shooters blows Farrell’s head off.
The situation is suspenseful and unique enough to hold our attention for a time. Well in advance of the picture’s climactic moments, however, it deteriorates into melodramatic talkiness and, as a result, Schumacher appears to have felt compelled to pull lots of last minute silliness out of his hat. The film’s final half dozen or so developments come off as embarrassingly incredible and contrived.
Farrell does a craftsman like job of gradually unraveling though, once again, predictions of imminent superstardom are sure to prove premature. The director lends the picture a visual snazziness which substitutes for liveliness but that’s not what people buy tickets to a movie like this for. And Sutherland, of course, has done this same badass psycho thing so many times it’s fitting his performance is phoned in.
“Phone Booth” isn’t totally without merit. At the same time, there doubtless are directors waiting by the phone capable of making something far more significant out of its script. The producers decided to go with Schumacher though. Like so many before, they must be asking themselves about now whether they made the right call.