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Save a Buck or Two! By avoiding this film completely.

Dial Another Day

Predictability and poor writing take their toll on 'Phone Booth'

By Richard von Busack

From the serious "this is the city" narration to the none-too-surprising surprise ending, Phone Booth--a stodgy, prosecutorial thriller by Joel Schumacher--might have been an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched to feature length. Filmed with a very vague idea of today's Manhattan street life (how long has this script by Larry Cohen been aging?), it's the story of a man kept pinned in a phone booth at Eighth Avenue and 53rd Street by a sniper who taunts him on the phone.

The gunman (an unseen Kiefer Sutherland) says he's killed two of society's vermin previously. The newest vermin is Stu Shepard, played by Colin Farrell, who is proving more apt in slightly comedic roguery than in lead roles. (Someone should write an Errol Flynn movie for him.) Stu is an abrasive, lying, married publicist who always goes to this particular phone booth to call his girlfriend to be (Katie Holmes). Farrell is so well bred he takes off his wedding ring to phone her. His ordeal is punishment for that would-be infidelity, but mostly it's for "the sin of spin."

Cohen has written clever low-budget thrillers and horror films, like Q and Best Seller; one of his scripts became a neglected Fourth of July-themed splatter movie, Uncle Sam (in which a deranged Gulf War vet dressed as Uncle Sam kills with sparklers, flagpoles, etc.). Phone Booth, however, needs a rewrite and the installation of a few twists and angles, as well as better vicious dialogue for Stu in the scenes before the ordeal--something to whet our appetite to see the swinish two-timing publicist get what's coming.

The less punitive members of the audience want to see Farrell using his only weapon--his gift for bullshit--to extricate himself from the deathtrap. Someone's got to show cleverness in this film: the likable but slow cop (Forest Whitaker) watching the standoff certainly takes a long time to size the situation up. As I watched Phone Booth, I found myself wishing that Stu's betrayed wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), would figure some way to spring her husband from the trap--proof that a wife and husband's bond is strong enough to survive potential betrayal. The languid Mitchell, as always, is a few beats slower than anyone else in the movie. We could have been made to understand what Stu saw in her--some peace from all the flack-racket around him--but Mitchell doesn't seem to believe in the role. She might well disbelieve--the plot requires disbelief on such facts that a ballistics crew can't tell the difference between a handgun and a rifle slug, or that tracing a phone call takes about an hour.

Phone Booth is all about rehabilitation. It's meant to get Shepard to admit, "I'm all a part of a big cycle of lies." What starts like Sorry, Wrong Number ends like Jerry Maguire. Perhaps there are autobiographical elements here: if Schumacher feels guilty after two terrible but popular Batman movies, I wish he'd figure out a different form of therapy.

Phone Booth (R; 81 min.), directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Larry Cohen, photographed by Matthew Libatique and starring Colin Farrell, Radha Mitchell and Kiefer Sutherland, opens Friday countywide.

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From the April 2-8, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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