There are as many conceptions of Hell as there are people who imagine what it must be like. CELLULAR presents a very particular one. The one where the damned soul is doomed to wander in Los Angeles traffic for all eternity on an endless and hopeless quest, thwarted at every turn by traffic jams, idiot drivers, and lawyers that are just begging to be punched in the kisser. And while many entertaining stories can be set in Hell, Dantes Inferno comes to mind, as do parts of Virgils Aeneid, alas, this tale is not one of them.
Our questor is Ryan (Chris Evans), an affable dude but, as his girlfriend conveniently lets us know in a scene where she tells him off, hes neither reliable nor mature. Our questee is Jessica (Kim Basinger), who is much prettier than Ryan, but has had the misfortune to be kidnapped by a seriously mean gang of home invaders who killed her housekeeper just to show that they meant business. By one of those cinematic quirks of fate, the locked room where shes being held has a phone, or rather, an ex-phone that was smashed to pieced shortly after her arrival. Ah, but our Jessica, who sports fishnet stockings and sensible shoes, is a high school biology teacher, which means that she can figure out how to cross a few wires and, as her bad luck gets worse, dial up Ryan at random. After convincing him that hers is not a crank call, the adventure begins as Ryan proceeds to engage in stunt driving and a crime spree in a desperate attempt to save Jessica, who has no idea where she has been taken. Its an effort notable only for Ryans unerring ability to always be a nanosecond too late whenever promptness is called for. In screenwriting, its called creating drama, in viewing, however, it becomes a running joke, though not one that was intended.
The problem here is that Evans is likable enough, and he does a fine job of hitting his marks and saying his lines unselfconsciously, but none of that, not even his good looks are anything remarkable. As for Basinger, she whimpers appropriately when necessary and even when its not. Jason Statham as the baddest bad guy is properly menacing with his cold stare and gravelly voice, but they, too, add nothing to a standard issue action script that might help it to overcome its more preposterous plot twists. Its all just silly rather than fun.
Fortunately, there is William H. Macy, as the nice guy cop whos sucked into the chaos. Because theres no such thing as too many clichés, hes also on the verge of retiring to run a day spa with his wife after 27 years of boredom on the force. Thats about to change, though, and just as radically as the film does whenever he appears on screen. There is something just magic about Macy, the polite exasperation morphing into tenuous heroics that surprise his character as much as the people watching. Its the unexpected emotional depths that Macy invests in something as trivial as lodging a telephone complaint over a shipping order that rings as true as tussling with the bad guys amid a grove of Tiki gods.
In a better world, CELLULAR would have focused on Macy and that pitch perfect brand of eager anxiety that can, with a twitch of his mouth or a slouch of his shoulder, make any scene worth watching. It would have left a mere pretty face such as Evans’ in the decorative background where it could do the most good.