Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find?” It’s about an older woman who exists in a state of moral sanctimony, sure that she is a wonderful person, her very surety blinding her to her own considerable shortcomings. She faces an extremely violent situation that snaps her out of her insulated little mindset, and the punchline of the story is when one of the characters remarks of her [this is a paraphrase]: “She would have been a good woman… if she’d had a gun pointed to her head every minute of her life.”
This has become one of the more meaningful passages of my life, which I think about often in everyday situations. Because how many of us commit little daily incivilities like pretending we don’t see the elderly person who could use a subway seat, moving in front of others who have been waiting longer when a new lane opens up at the grocery store or fast food restaurant, sitting in the aisle seat of a bus or train and putting your bag in the seat beside you because you don’t want someone sitting next to you… and do them because we know there won’t be any consequences? We can do them—and simultaneously consider ourselves to be super people and wonderful human beings—simply because no one will confront us over these things. Things that we would never do if we would have to face consequences—if we’d had a gun held to our head our entire lives.
I bring this up in order to make you marvel at how very literary and thoughtful I am, but also because it’s the main idea behind Phone Booth. This is kind of a stunt thriller written by Larry Cohen, a writer and director [It’s Alive, The Stuff] who specializes in movies with a great conceptual hook but unreliable execution, and directed by Joel Schumacher, purveyor of super-slick, crass commercial entertainments who will forever be known as the man who succeeded against all odds in killing off the original Batman franchise.
We open with a zoom up through clouds into space, where we soon see a satellite, and reflected there is Earth. We zoom down into Manhattan, into Times Square, where we have a curious montage of African-Americans and their many pursuits—street vendors, du-ragged doo-wop groups [OH so common in Manhattan!], street dancers, passers-by, etc. It’s a little curious all the sudden and exclusive focus on blacks right up front, but we’ll notice a theme running through the movie, the familiar wanna-be-black thing about how wonderful and creative African-Americans are and what horrid, insipid, small-minded people whites are. But first a little voice-over exposition offers us facts and figures on the number of cell phones in use at the time , and shows us footage of a bunch of people wandering through Times Square on their cell phones, meant to deliver the message “We’re all on cell phones now!” but which actually might make you think “No, YOU’RE always on a cell phone.”
Already we’re knee-deep in slick Schumacher bullshit. That’s one of the reasons I like watching crap B movies; even though they may have lowered quality, they also have less of this focus-tested, cynical, middle-of-the-road, mall-ready BULLSHIT. Anyway, after a little more exposition about how this one phone booth just north of Times Square is the last enclosed phone booth in the city and scheduled to be replaced the next morning—the movie’s way of telling us that it knows the existence of this booth at this late date is highly unlikely. I’m guessing Cohen had this script idea sitting around for decades [a little IMDb research says he originally pitched it to Hitchcock] and realized he had to get it into production before it was completely obsolete. So we now meet then up-and-coming Colin Farrell as Stu Shepard, rising publicist with bad millennial hair. He walks around wheeler-dealering with his assistant Adam, who aspires to one day be a slimeball like his boss. We have Stu calling one magazine and lying to them that another magazine wants his white rapper on the cover, in order to get THEM to put him on the cover. We get him pretending to want to rescind a gossip item about the white rapper, in order to the paper to publish the item. He’s a sneaky one! We also see a snippet of the tiny white rapper desperately trying to appear “gangsta” for the benefit of his two hulking black guards, part of the Joel-Schumacher-really-wishes-he-were-black-and-cool theme. Anyway, we hear that Stu “puts the ‘ho’ in show business,” which pretty much sums his character up.
So Stu goes to this phone booth which is right by a huge sign that inexplicably says “Who do you think you are?” Wait—THEMATIC KLAXON SOUNDING! Then a man comes to deliver a pizza to Stu in his phone booth, and Stu is mildly dismissive to him, but no more than is called for, given the strangeness of the situation, although the film treats it as though he stole a puppy from a quadriplegic and set it on fire in front of him. While eating chips. With his mouth open. Then he places a call to—Ewwww, Katie Holmes! I totally forgot she was in this movie! She is Pam, this aspiring actress who Stu is hoping to boff—he even takes his wedding ring off just to call her. Once he gets off the phone and starts to walk away, the phone rings. It’s—THE PSYCHO. He starts commenting right away how people just “have” to answer a ringing phone, and making all sorts of other comments on human nature. This scene is desperately asking for a SNL-style parody, like Farrell answering a pay phone and the voice saying “Have you ever noticed how some people keep pulling at a string, even though it’ll ruin their sweater?” or suchlike. I did amuse myself for a while thinking of other observations on human nature the voice might make. You’ll notice that while all the other phone conversations have been mixed to your side speakers, the voice of THE PSYCHO is front and center.
The voice of the psycho is also that of Kiefer Sutherland, then rather a nobody, and hired specifically for the creepy unctuousness of his voice. A bit TOO creepily unctuous, if you ask me, but whatever, we’re aiming for the lowest common denominator. So the voice tells Stu he’s been watched, and the person on the phone finds him morally wanting—it’s the gun held to his head! And the voice does claim to have a gun, a rifle, which I’m not sure if Stu just believes of he proves with the poorly-animated CGI laser sight that shows up later. Anyway, then the voice calls up Pam and makes Stu listen while it says “You married Tom Cruise because he paid you! Admit it! And you had his demon child inside you! HE WILL NEVER LET YOU GO…. ALIVE!” Actually he doesn’t. He just tells her that Stu is married and only wanted to pump her punanny without doing anything for her career. Ho hum.
Meanwhile these, ahem, “female entertainers” from the strip joint across the street are banging on the booth to get in to use it. Then the voice makes him call his wife, Kelly, but he can’t bear to tell her about Pam. Then the lovely ladies from across the street send over bouncer Leon, who threatens Stu, blah, blah, and eventually the psycho shoots him. Leon, that is. This causes the one of the sensuous ladies of the night to shriek “You killed my babydaddy!” By the way, one of these TSquare TStrumpets is played by Tia Texada, immortal to bad movie lovers from her searing supporting role in Mariah Carey achievement Glitter. Holy shit, if this move had gone all the way and had the other adultutainer be played by her Glitter co-star Da Brat—HOLY FUCKIN’ SHIT.
SPOILERS > > >
So now the police are on the way, everyone thinks Stu has a gun, and the voice is telling Stu that he didn’t offer Leon “respect, which is what he really wanted,” although that is patent crap. By the by, Leon wasn’t exactly coming to Stu in a level-headed spirit of respect and understanding—more evidence of how this movie is pure bullshit. The voice tells Stu that he’s the same guy who assassinated a secret pedophile a few weeks back, and a guy who manipulated stock so a bunch of regular folks lost a lot of money. We also find out the psycho has bugged the phone booth so he can hear all the other stuff going on there. Eventually the police show up, led by Forest Whitaker as Roney. The vast majority of Roney’s force is black, except the one white guy who is shown to be an asshole and is eventually proven wrong in how he would have dealt with the situation. Blah blah, blah blah, eventually Stu is forced to lean out of the booth and shout down the street about how he’s a schmuck and is “part of a cycle of lies” and is generally a jerk. Okay, well, this could describe any person in New York City. Stu also confesses to being “Just flesh and blood and weakness!” At this point Radha Mitchell, the actress who keeps showing up despite the fact that no one ever wants to see her, has appeared on the scene and made several concerned faces.
Eventually Stu is forced to publicly confess to Kelly that he had impure thoughts about Pam! By now the police have gotten a lead on the sniper, and break into his room and nab him! It was the pizza delivery guy! Who slit his neck with a box cutter, drat him! Kelly says—quite rightly—that she doesn’t care that Stu thought about popping some other girl, and I guess they drug Stu, and throw him in the back of an ambulance. There’s a little thing right at the end that I won’t reveal for you, but goes far to win back a lot of goodwill for the movie.
< < < SPOILERS END
Hmmmm, I ain’t buying. The biggest issue is that, much as I am no defender of slimy, lying publicity people, I think in terms of people who deserve a harsh dose of justice, we have bigger fish to fry [George W. Bush, for example…]. The killer says he executed a pedophile… a stock manipulator… and Stu, who maybe told a few lies and had some dirty thoughts? Is that REALLY so bad? I kept waiting for him to confess that he ruined other publicist’s careers or has a stack of decomposing bodies in the basement, but his crime is… he’s a douche? He didn’t even cheat on his wife, he just THOUGHT about it? Hey Larry Cohen, New York is the city that gave us Bernie Madoff, you know?
But maybe the whole IDEA is that Stu is just as guilty for these minor infractions that reveal what a bastard he is than if he actually had done worse things, which I guess comes down to your own morality. IS Stu just as guilty for thinking about sex with another woman as if he had actually done it? Let’s say for a second you say yes. Then I would advise the movie to articulate that viewpoint more fully, like the killer did at the end of Seven: No one is innocent, we are all scum-sucking bastards in some way, and all probably deserve to die on some level. That can be really compelling, as it was there. But the thing is, you can’t really flip between pedophiles and mild jerks and expect people to equate them. There have been some compelling movies in which people have ruined others lives for mild infractions, like Oldboy or Ripley’s Game, but they’re more carefully to give that detail some impact. And truth be told, this entire film, script and direction, has the feel of something quickly tossed off without as much thought as it could have benefited from.
There’s the other thing about the film being kind of a stunt; the challenge/gimmick to make an interesting movie confined to one tiny location, unfolding in real time. The classic example of this would be Rope, and my feeling is that since Hitchcock did it in Rope, there’s no real reason for anyone to do it again. Schumacher does pretty well keeping the limited setting interesting [although you do start kind of saying “Oh, that shot AGAIN?”], and you don’t rally notice how confined the setting is until the end, when you sort of feel like you’ve eaten a stick of beef jerky rather than a steak.
Farrell is very good, and ably handles the exhausting emotional journey the character has to take. Everyone else is fine, but, as mentioned, Sutherland’s voice is a little too unctuous for my taste… it just starts to edge over the top in an obvious way. Other than that, you could do worse if it’s on cable or is a 99-cent rental or you just HAVE to see all the movies of Katie Holmes, but other than that you might just want to skip it.
It won’t kill you, but not too much else can be said for it.