Stuart Shepard is a jerk. We first see him navigating Times Square, locked onto a cell phone and trailed by an eager assistant, the pure id of an asshole publicist in full cry. He’s a celebrity bottom-feeder who wears showy Italian suits and not only subsists on scoring magazine covers, dining at a hot new restaurant, and the soft soap with which he negotiates for these scraps, but also is satisfied by them. He strings along his actress/restaurant hostess girlfriend, Pamela (Katie Holmes), with the same half-truths and almost-promises he uses on his anonymous clientele and poor assistant, who thinks he’s got a future in PR but clearly has not seen The Sweet Smell of Success. Stu’s a sleazebag, and if he had a decent bone in his body, he’d reveal it only under extreme duress.
That, of course, is exactly what Stu (Colin Farrell) gets. He goes into a telephone booth to place a call to said girlfriend, and hangs up, and strange things begin to happen. A delivery boy tries to drop off a couple of pizzasan event which bypasses Stu’s Weird-O-Meter on its way to inciting his reflexive rage at being pestered by the little people. The phone rings, and Stu picks it up, to learn the hard way that the voice on the other end has a rifle pointed at his head and won’t let him disconnect until he undergoes a complete jerkectomy.
Phone Booth is one of those movies in which the action is trapped within one location, so screenwriter Larry Cohen (veteran of various detective and spy TV shows) and director Joel Schumacher (veteran of The Lost Boys and Batman Forever) have a particular challenge in keeping things lively. The script presents a man’s world shrunk down to a box barely the size of the man himself, the source of conflict a voice on the phone and the images seen through glass. The focus, in every sense, is on Stu: his voice, his fear, and the gradual breakdown of his psyche as he’s forced to discard everything he has learned to bargain with. It helps things immensely that Farrell is astounding in this difficult role.
As Stu hangs on, trying to figure out whether the madman is serious and, if so, what he wants from his quarry, the street corner outside the booth comes alive. A little rainbow nation of hookers who depend on that phone harass him, finally involving their violent pimp. The altercation allows Stu to show what he’s made of: He can either let the pimp kill him or ask for backup. The final score is one dead pimp, one hysterical publicist trapped in a phone booth, and a whole lot of policemen who follow the hookers’ pointing fingers straight to Stu.
Most of Phone Booth is dialogue, but you hardly notice. Farrell so completely inhabits Stu’s glossy exterior that it’s wondrous to see what’s underneath as the character’s defensiveness and phoniness begin to drop away. The screenplay gives Stu a dark sense of humor, which tickles the psycho on the other end of the line, and his ability to think fast is revealed to be the result of a gift for reading people and not just sucking up to them. He moves from self-pity to anger to transparently desperate ploys as he tries not to give the shooter what he wants.
What the shooter wants is some decency in the world, and you have to agree with Stu that this is one hell of a way to get it. He’s offended not just by Stu’s planned betrayal of his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), but also by the cheapness and glibness Stu’s life represents. The shooter’s a vigilante with a string of hits, including a child molester and an evil CEO, and his MO is to go around targeting rotten souls, turning them into puddles of pleading confession before blowing them away. But he’s also one of those Jeffrey Deaver-style mad geniuses with unlimited technical know-how and an infinitely subtle and multilayered system of obfuscation. As voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, he sounds like Vincent Price doing a road-show Hannibal Lecter; you expect him to call Stu “Clarice” at any moment. The villain raises the stakes higher and higher, finally pointing out that there is, actually, a gun positioned inside the booth and that the police surrounding Stu therefore will not believe his claim that he didn’t shoot the pimp. Would he please take down the gun, wave it around, and, oh, not hang up the phone?
The police are represented by a captain (Forest Whitaker), who thinks he can coax Stu out of the booth with empathetic talk (“It’s long distance,” Stu calls out with his newfound sense of humor), and a negotiator (James MacDonald), who wouldn’t mind if any one of the dozens of SWAT boys ranged around the booth fired at will. But the real tension is in Farrell’s voice and the rapid waves of calculation and desperation that cross his face as he clings to that receiver. By the end, when Stu is surrounded by milling cops, unsmiling marksmen, chugging helicopters, horrified bystanders, his wife, his girlfriend, his assistant, and the groomed and perky media, his attitude is well and truly adjustednot because he’s been threatened, but because he’s achieved the status he promises to his clients and found it dispiriting, intrusive, and cheap. Phone Booth is a big slick movie about the evils of fame, and even if Hollywood’s impulse to decry its own lifeblood is meretricious, there’s something satisfying in seeing it executed with such nerve-wracking panache. CP