One of those wise old Greeks, perhaps it was Socrates, said that the unexamined life is not worth living. And in PHONE BOOTH, there’s a psycho with a gun who’s taken that bit of philosophy way too literally. This being a Joel Schumacher film, he of FLATLINERS and BATMAN and other flights of high-flown fancy, we must think of what unfolds not so much as an exploration of the human condition, as a rootin’ tootin’ ride through the fun house with a few laughs and an interesting point or two along the way, metaphorically speaking, about how we can’t seem to free ourselves from our phones. Think about it. How many people are chatting on a cell phone right now?
The unwilling object of the lesson in self-examination is Stu Shehard (Colin Farrell), a small-time PR man in a black suit and a raspberry silk shirt. We meet him glad-handing his way around Manhattan, balancing two cell phones and an intern as he pushes his not-quite-midrange clients into the media hype machine. Or tries to. He hits, he misses, but mostly he just keeps on plugging with that upbeat attitude that made America great. Stu has a few failings, a fib here, a brush-off there, and he has a few weaknesses. One in particular becomes the root of his problem. That would be Pam (Katie Holmes), a wanna-be actress that Stu is trying to get into bed. He calls her every day at the same time from the same phone booth, the last one in Manhattan, to chat her up in hopes of one day sexing her up. Never mind about his loving wife (Radha Mitchell) who’s at least as lovely.
On the day in question, Stu is getting ready to make his call when things get weird. Someone delivers a pizza to the booth. Then, after getting shot down once again by Pam, he hangs up the phone and it begins to ring. He answers, because there’s just something about a ringing phone that demands answering. On the other end is a sinister voice that knows all about Stu and he wants our PR guy to come clean to the Missus about his almost-philanderings. If he tries to leave the phone booth without calling her up on his cell phone and confessing, he’ll be shot. If he hangs up on his caller, he’ll be shot. One thing leads to another and before you can say “duck” there’s a body on the street and Stu’s getting all the wrong kind of publicity. Never mind being heckled by a group of ticked off hookers who want to use the phone.
You’re sitting there thinking that this is just silly. But gosh darn if there isn’t something about PHONE BOOTH that makes you want to see what’s going to happen next. Especially after the SWAT team arrives with policeman Forrest Whitaker in tow to try to talk Stu out of the booth. It helps that Schumacher has paced the action at a good clip and found more ways than you can possibly imagine to film Farrell in that phone booth. Unlike say, DAS BOOT there’s never an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia. Plus Farrell’s is not a bad face to focus on as he suffers the agonies of the damned and several stages of denial with a palpable intensity while going from cocky to desperate with beads sweat flowing freely from his noble brow. If only his accent didn’t shift from Manhattan to Ireland from time to time. As for the voice on the phone, we’ve got Kiefer Sutherland, whose precise, measured and mocking tones are genuinely creepy. Even Whitaker has some subtlety, talking a little too much about his ex-wife with just a hint of a twitch every now and then.
PHONE BOOTH is kitschy, not classic. But it’s never boring, and it might just make you want to turn that cell phone off.