The Cohen Case Files: Phone Booth (2002)

Written by Larry Cohen

Joel Schumacher just couldn’t get out of the way. Given a fairly interesting story and mostly tight screenplay, Phone Booth could have been a tense, sweaty little thriller. Instead, with Schumacher at the helm, the film feels at times like an homage to the more ADD-afflicted films of Tony Scott and Michael Bay.

Literally starting in outer space, a communications satellite swoops by the camera before the camera plummets toward Earth. First, North America takes shape, then the camera pushes in on the eastern seaboard before zeroing in on Manhattan. The shot doesn’t stop there. The camera keeps plunging until it’s inside a cell phone, exploring the mechanism before emerging to show shots of hundreds of people talking on cell phones. A narrator then runs down some facts and figures about how many people live in New York, how many own cell phones, how few working phone booths still exist in Manhattan, and how one phone booth on a specific corner is scheduled to be demolished the next day.

What does any of this have to do with the story about to be told? Not a damn thing. It’s just the first sign that Schumacher is working overtime to pump up a slight story into an overblown blockbuster.

Eventually, the narrator finally gets around to informing us that the last person to use the phone booth scheduled for destruction is Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell). Stu is a self-styled publicist with a roster of C-list talent like a white rapper calling himself Big Q (an uncredited Ben Foster), a restaurant owner (Josh Pais) he has been bleeding for free meals, and Pam, a struggling actress (Katie Holmes) he is trying to get into bed.

It turns out that Stu uses the phone booth at the same time every day to call Pam and try to lure her to drinks at a hotel bar nearby. Why does a guy who spends most of his day with a cell phone pressed to his ear need to use a phone booth? Cohen’s script offers the simple but clever excuse that Stu’s wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell in a thankless role) checks their phone bill and would discover his attempted adultery.

On this fateful day, Stu makes his call to Pam who once again shoots down his attempts at getting her to meet him for drinks. He hangs up the phone, ready to get on with his day, but stops when the phone rings. By pure instinct, he answers it to find a mystery man (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) on the other side of the line.

The caller taunts Stu about his would-be affair, his fly-by-night public relations business, and his gaudy clothing. Stu goes from finding the conversation ridiculous to humorous to creepy as the caller reveals more and more intimate knowledge about Stu’s life. When Stu announces he’s going to hang up the phone, the caller threatens to kill him if he does so.
Stu thinks the caller’s claim that he has a silenced sniper rifle aimed at the phone booth is bullshit until a bullet destroys a small robotic toy a street vendor is trying to sell. The caller then reiterates that if he hangs up the phone, he will be shot. It is at that point that Stu realizes he is trapped in the booth, at the mercy of a maniac.

As plot contrivances go, it’s as fiendish and clever as it is simple: two characters; one at the mercy of the other. Cohen even sets it up so that only one of the characters has to be on screen. But the question remains: what does the mystery man want? That’s where the story starts to get a little hazy.

It seems that the mystery caller has been responsible for two recent murders in the city. The first was a pornographer distributing child porn and hiding behind the excuse that the pictures were “art.” The second was a Wall Street bigwig who cashed out his stock before his company went under, leaving his employees and investors broke. Neither man would admit to their crimes or immoralities, so they paid the price.

Now, the killer has his sights literally set on Stu. But of what heinous crime or moral failing is Stu guilty? He’s a braggart, convincing a series of easily duped clients he can do more for them than he can actually deliver. He’s lying to Pam, letting her believe he is actually single while he tries to maneuver her into bed. He is trying—and failing—to cheat on his wife. He is hiding from who he really is behind expensive suits and a fake Rolex. All of which adds up to kind of a scumbag, but hardly a guy worth going through the punishment being dealt out. The script does try to address this inequality at one point, but never comes up with a clear, satisfying reason for why the caller has targeted him.

The waters are further muddied by a group of over-the-top prostitutes angry with Stu for tying up the pay phone they usually use to conduct business. The caller veers between finding this complication amusing and angrily forcing Stu to get rid of the women. When their pimp (John Enos III) tries to physically remove Stu from the booth, the caller shoots him dead, leading the prostitutes to accuse Stu of the shooting.

Before you can say Dog Day Afternoon, the police are on the scene, led by Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker). With the prostitutes claiming they saw Stu shoot the pimp, the police believe he is armed and possibly a danger to himself and others. This assumption is backed up by Stu’s refusal to get off the phone and the caller making him lie to the police about to whom he is talking. Stu’s clever lie is to claim he is talking with his psychiatrist.

With a fresh corpse laid out on the street and a police standoff in progress, the media coverage is sudden and intense. Seeing Stu on the news brings Kelly and Pam to the scene, giving the caller more leverage as he threatens to kill them as well if Stu doesn’t make a confession to his misdeeds…or something.

Next to Schumacher’s overly caffeinated direction, the lack of a clear goal for the villain is the major problem with Phone Booth. Sometimes this absence of a motive is used as a way to make the situation even more nightmarish for Stu as the rules keep changing on him. But more often, the randomness of the caller’s rules and his demands simply feel like artificial ways to up the ante on a plot that demands an ever-increasing amount of tension to work.

But that needed tension is undercut with the arrival of the police. Whitaker is an actor who cannot help but radiate intelligence, but Ramey seems slightly…well, dumb. His first comment when he arrives on the scene is to point out how unlikely it is that Stu would murder someone and then wait around to talk on the phone. But then he almost immediately brushes his own common sense aside because the film requires him to initially act as another obstacle for Stu. But having Whitaker try to play a character slow to catch on to the situation is a bad idea. He just doesn’t seem to have it in him to come across as a dullard.

Looking back over what I’ve written, you could be forgiven if you believed that I didn’t like the film. In truth, I enjoyed much of it and am recommending the movie. It is just frustrating when Schumacher and Cohen stray from the more intriguing standoff between Stu and the caller to introduce characters who only exist to be potential plot complications.

Phone Booth is probably the most commercially successful film based on a Cohen script. Aside from the films Cohen directed, it also has the most Cohen-like protagonist in Stu.

Like Peter Nicholas in God Told Me To and Frank Davies in It’s Alive, Stu is a study in contrasts. He is a man who loves his wife, but, driven by the possibility of getting to sleep with someone who looks like Katie Holmes, he is willing to cheat. He seems to actually like Adam (Keith Nobbs), the kid he is using as an unpaid intern, even as he strings him along with empty promises. And in the best Cohen tradition, he is also an alpha male who is stripped of the façade he presents to the world, forced to deal with a situation he cannot possibly control.

Farrell admirably commits to the role, fast-talking (in a wavering Bronx by way of Dublin accent) everyone he comes into contact with to get his way in the early going of the film. He doesn’t ever ask for sympathy, allowing the absurd situation to place the audience on his side. He even manages to avoid going over-the-top as his situation becomes more desperate.

Much of what works about the film is the interplay between Stu and the caller. Credit for that goes to Farrell’s believable breakdown as Stu and the playful tone Sutherland gives his unseen villain’s voice. Considering Sutherland doesn’t appear on-camera until the final scene and that Farrell was almost certainly not reacting to Sutherland’s actual dialogue, that they develop a genuine antagonistic chemistry is an impressive bit of work on the part of the actors, the sound department, and the editor.

In the end, Phone Booth is a fairly decent thriller that could have been much better. Schumacher’s direction is just too cluttered and Cohen’s script tries to cram too many characters into the film’s 81 minute running time. But when the film stays to the basics of one helpless man at the mercy of a psychopath, it has some gripping moments.

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