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Phone Booth

Colin Farrell is a hot, new actor currently setting young women's hearts aflutter all across America. I know this because almost every female student I have has mentioned she plans on seeing Phone Booth when it opens this weekend. "Does he take his shirt off," they ask? Joel Schumacher is a has-been director on the back side of a financially, though not critically, successful career. I know this because I've had the misfortune of seeing 8MM, Batman & Robin, and Batman Forever. "Will someone make him stop?" I plead. Colin Farrell. Joel Schumacher. The two primary forces in the movie Phone Booth. Will hot, new, and sexy rise to the top or will the forces of old, bloated, and boring rise up and swallow the young talent? It's a death match to the end in Phone Booth.

Actually, Phone Booth concerns a death match of a different kind. Farrell plays hot-shot publicist Stu Shepard. We see Stu as he strides through Times Square barking out orders on his cell phones. In tow is a cowering though admiring personal assistant that Stu is both teaching and manipulating. Stu's showing him the ropes of how to get magazines, gossip columnists, and nightclub owners to do his bidding, thereby impressing his clients to give him even more money. It involves a whole lot of talk and not much truth. But Stu's not alone; everyone's scamming everyone else. In one hilarious scene, a diminutive, white rapper sits in the back of a limo trying to talk tough on a cell phone, just so his much larger, black cohorts won't think him soft. Stu actually seems impressed. It's just a normal day in the money-filled media world. Normal that is, until Stu steps into a phone booth.

Now, why is a man who has multiple cell phones stepping into a Times Square phone booth? For the privacy, of course. No, you see he's about to make a naughty phone call, one he doesn't want to show up on any cell-phone account. He's calling Pam (Katie Holmes), a potential client and an even more potential bedroom partner. Just don't tell Kelly, Stu's wife. The weird thing is that though Pam and Kelly don't know anything about each other, a psychotic stalker knows about both of 'em. And he's decided to call Stu out, literally. Let the death match commence.

Our madman, played by the voice of Kiefer Sutherland but with enough reverb to echo Vincent Price, calls Stu on the pay phone and then orders him not to leave. When Stu threatens to hang up and walk away, the Caller (that's how he's listed in the credits...that's Mr. Caller to you) shows off his laser-guided rifle by pinpointing a little red dot on Stu's chest. Suitably impressed, Stu decides to stay on the line. But for what purpose? Is the Caller a former client who's extraordinarily ticked off, or is he a deranged psychopath enjoying a spot of extreme urban hunting, or maybe's there a somewhat higher motive involved? How about those lies Stu's been telling everyone? Maybe it's time for him to come clean.

You wouldn't think a movie that takes place almost exclusively in a phone booth would be able to hold your attention. And you'd be right. But Phone Booth is oddly compelling in places. Colin Farrell's transformation from slick, fast-talking publicist to sweaty, insecure prey is convincing. Though I didn't believe any aspect of Sutherland's delivery, especially that asinine laugh, I was still interested to see how the story'd turn out. We even have the welcome pleasure of seeing Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog) show up as a lead police negotiator. I wouldn't mind if Whitaker's publicist told a lie or two as long as it garnered some bigger roles for him. Wouldn't he be perfect as Chief Moose in the movie adaptation of last summer's sniper scandal?

Oh yeah, last summer's sniper scandal. We had forgotten all about that, hadn't we? Turns out Phone Booth was supposed to be released last September, but Fox postponed it "out of sensitivity to the victims." Talk about a big, fat publicist's lie. Fox was afraid that people might not enjoy watching something that was a little too close to reality. Now that we've largely forgotten that media circus, we're ok with serial killers and hunting rifles. At least Fox is.

But how about the real death match, the one between Farrell and Schumacher? Farrell scores with a portrayal that holds our attention, and his scruffiness and good-looking clothes won't hurt his standing with the ladies. Schumacher lands punches with a hokey theme of redemption and plot holes that are bigger than Times Square. But Farrell finds a tag-team partner in Whitaker, who brings dignity and weight to the battle. However, Schumacher tags an unlikely partner of his own in Sutherland, who's weighed down with a sound design that nullifies his natural strengths. Farrell tries to pull it out in the end with a heart-felt speech about truth, doing right by your fellow man, and being a person of integrity. But the speech is really just a sop that no one believes; score that round for Schumacher. Schumacher takes control of the fight with female characters that are either sappy or brassy and then scores a knock-out punch with a fake ending that fools nobody. The winner is Joel Schumacher! Booooooooo!!   

J. Robert Parks 3/29/2003


 

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