Phone Booth Really Has the Wrong Number

Pterodactyls could flap through the plot holes in Phone Booth, in formation with a fleet of Airbus A3XX superjumbo jets. (The movie opens Friday, April 4 at Pacific Place and others.) Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a slick, wicked womanizer and showbiz publicist, can't use his cell phone to call an actress he wants to hump and dump because his wife scrutinizes his cell phone bills. Um . . . so why doesn't he buy a second cell phone? Because the script Larry Cohen scribbled in less than a week, and Joel Schumacher shot in less than two, only contains one idea: Stu must use a New York pay phone to call his pulchritudinous prey, so that the Caller (Kiefer Sutherland) can call Stu there and tell him not to move or he'll shoot him from a nearby skyscraper window. To prove it, the Caller shoots a passerby, causing everyone to think Stu is the gunman. Enter NYPD Capt. Ramey (Forest Whitaker), who tries to calm everybody down and be nice. Soon both Stu's wife (drab, forgettable Radha Mitchell)who thinks he's faithfuland the actress (asymmetrical-faced Kewpie Katie Holmes)who thinks he's singleare on the scene, and the Caller forces Stu to announce in front of the crowd that he's cheating on both of them. The Caller claims he only targets people who are guilty: a pedophile; a CEO who screwed his shareholders; a publicist like Shepard who cheats on his wife. It's all preprocessed blah-blah, sanctimonious flapdoodle. The Caller is a motiveless malignity, and we want him to just shut up and deal death. The three-way battle of wits among Stu, the Captain, and the Caller is cleverly contrived, but very contrived. It reminds me of the various disasters that happen in the volcano movie Dante's Peak: Just figure out all the things that can go wrong in a given dire situation, and you've pretty much imagined this movie. Human motives aren't really involved, even if they're invoked. The movie doesn't really care about the love triangle, only the action-hero triangle. Ramey keeps ordering the women to get back inside the police car, safe from the sniper's crosshairs, but they keep not obeying him. The movie needs them to keep popping back into harm's way. The story and characters are so skimpy, the whole melodrama adds up to just so much window dressing. Ah, but what a window dresser Joel Schumacher is! He famously started out making windows dramatic at Bendel's, graduated to designing clothes for Revlon, then costumes for indie movies by Joan Didion and Woody Allen; then he started directing movies as nonindie as Batman Forever. At the peak of his power, he renounced Batman and John Grisham adaptations to go back to teeny indie pictures (this one's a low-budget quasi-indie). But his pictures have nothing to say and no personality to express. At either end of the budget spectrum, he makes movies that look sleek, play smoothly, add up to nothing, and evaporate on the palate. He's the dry beer of directors. The guy really has a touch for visual style but not really any personal style as an auteur. Weirdly, he's got an amazing eye for talent and no idea as to what to do with it. He practically discovered Kiefer Sutherland (back in 1987's The Lost Boys), Colin Farrell (the still unreleased Tigerland), and plenty of unknowns in between. Yet he doesn't seem to care about the nature of the characters they play. They're all mannequins on exquisite display. Another Schumacher paradox: He's good at generating galvanic suspense, but helpless to give the suspense any sort of dramatic point. Phone Booth impressively grabs your attention from moment to moment but fails to convince you that anything or anyone you see is worth a moment's notice. It's like a glossy department-store windowif you see something that grabs you, great; but it's not like the window dresser gives a shit how you feel or what you think. Buy or walk on byit's all the same to Joel Schumacher. Phone Booth was delayed for months by the real-life D.C. sniper crisis, now utterly forgotten. Of course, Schumacher's sniper never had anything to do with real life. The film has nothing to say about issues: It could've been about guns, vigilantes, cell phone culture, adultery, showbiz shallowness, hostage psychology, news coverage of crisesany of the themes it glancingly touches on. But it's actually about nothing but pinning the viewer in his or her seat for 80 minutes as efficiently as possible. Sutherland's character is barely glimpsed on camera, and the role proves how far his career had cratered when he was cast. Generic voice-over psycho roles are the last resort of a loserwhat you get after you get so pigeonholed in generic psycho roles (Schumacher's A Time to Kill, John Schlesinger's Eye for an Eye) that nobody wants to see you in anything else, and in fact they'd like to see you on-screen as little as possible. Farrell is about the only plausible new leading man on the horizon; he's got the star-power goods; he frets and sweats eloquently, trapped in the window of Schumacher's booth for almost every minute of the movie. But he's ever so much better in the tabloids, humping and dumping Britney Spears, mouthing off, getting blotto, and acting like Bluto. (Schumacher actually heard Farrell pick up a stunning lovely at a Hollywood party with the line, "You've never seen an uncircumsized penis?") Somebody should capture Farrell's anarchic spirit in a movie sometime. But first he'll have to find a director who does more than phone it in. tappelo@seattleweekly

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