"Isn't it funny? You hear a phone ring, and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it? Doesn't it?"
My second review of a movie starring Colin Farrell (The Recruit, Minority Report, Daredevil) in as many weeks, and I'm once again going to start off by extolling the young man's talent. This boy is good, really good. He's one of those remarkably talented people who is brimming with talent. Definitely more than a flash-in-the-pan, Colin is going to become an A-list Hollywood star in no time and begin pulling in those remarkable $20 million paychecks. Unlike most at that level, I believe he'll truly be earning his checks by selecting complicated characters in intriguing films. I just have to wonder when he'll be allowed to use his real Irish accent?
Phone Booth, a high concept yet deceivingly simple film, clocks in a trim 81 minutes. In the spirit of the film, this will be a lean review.
Facts of the Case
Stu Shepard (Farrell) is a fast-talking publicist. He lies to everyone in his life, including himself. So full of ego and brashness, Stu finagles his way around town, pumping up his clients and manipulating anyone who can get him one step further in life.
Every day Stu visits the last remaining phone booth in New York City to call Pam (Katie Holmes, Wonder Boys, Dawson's Creek), a newcomer to the big city whom he would like to get to know much better. The problem here is that Stu is already married to Kelly (Radha Mitchell, Pitch Black). After another unsuccessful attempt to get Pam into bed, Stu hangs up the phone only to have it immediately begin ringing. The worst and possibly last day of his life has just begun.
On the other end of the call is a mysterious man who has a sniper rifle aimed at Stu. The Caller (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners, Dark City, 24) claims he's killed others, and he wants Stu to confess his sins or he will die. If Stu hangs up the phone or tries to notify anyone, he will die. The situation quickly escalates, and Stu finds himself surrounded by the N.Y.P.D. It's a real-time battle for Stu, as he tries to find a way to appease The Caller and save his own life.
Brazenly filmed in twelve days (well, ten full days and two half-day pickups), Phone Booth is a clear-cut concept that shouldn't work. As Salieri from Amadeus said, "On the page, it looked nothing!" How could a movie about a man trapped in a phone booth for an hour be exciting? You're focused on one man, in one place, talking into a phone. That's about it. You know why this film works? Colin Farrell. This boy is good, really good. When you stop to think about it, this film is nothing without a strong lead in Stu's role. Everything hinges on that character, and as such, everything moves forward based on his actions. Farrell is superb in this role. In the course of this sleek picture, Farrell takes Stu from the height of hubris to the valley of despair. You have to utterly believe in Stu for the film to work, and Farrell does make you a believer. Expressing a full gamut of emotions, Farrell nails his performance as a man who must realize who he is and attempt to change in just a matter of moments. He must destroy the façade and let the real man out, if there is to be any chance of salvation. Truly, it's a brilliant, tense performance.
But not to be forgotten is director Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, A Time to Kill, Falling Down), a man with a diverse résumé. He's made some duds; but when he does it right, he absolutely does it right; and Phone Booth is perfectly on the mark. Utilizing a brisk, aggressive style, multiple frames in a scene, and other subtle visual tricks, Schumacher has crafted a tense story that will captivate the audience. With his vision, Schumacher made a straightforward story into one of the best psychological thrillers in some time. Realizing the extreme limitations of the set, Schumacher gets additional kudos for hiring a brilliant cinematographer, Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Tigerland), who was able to come up with many different and appealing ways of filming a man in a phone booth.
The DVD comes with your choice of either an anamorphic widescreen or full screen presentation. Ignoring the latter, especially in light of Schumacher's visual approach, the widescreen transfer is very good. Using a palette with a strong emphasis on blues, the colors are accurate but not bold due to the overall blue hue. The video is very clean with the only hiccup being some minor artifacting (most notable in the opening cloud scene). Sharpness is a touch on the soft side as well, but you'll still find the details well presented. Sporting a 5.1 Dolby Digital track, the audio surprised me by being far richer than one might expect from a dialogue intensive drama. Right at the start, you're hit with some nice surrounds and bass as you zoom into New York City. As Farrell gets trapped in the phone booth, you believe you're right there with him as the surrounds are expertly used to add credibility to the scene. And best of all in my book is how The Caller's voice simply comes from everywhere. When The Caller speaks, his voice commands your attention, and as Kiefer has such a rich and definitive voice, it's all the better.
Almost a bare bones disc, extras are a bit on the light side, contrary to the Fox P.R. department. You get two trailers, one for Phone Booth and one for an interesting looking film called Garage Days, and an audio commentary with Joel Schumacher. Fortunately, the only real bonus feature is a good one. This is my favorite type of commentary, where the director is honest and forthright. He openly talks about a great many facets of the film, and you truly learn something about the process, the people, and the film. He also did something that I've never heard before, and I appreciated it. Schumacher knew there was an upcoming scene that he didn't want to talk through; hence, he extolled the virtues of that scene ahead of time and then shut up. I loved that. This is a great commentary track. Too bad there wasn't anything else to see on the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I've been generous in my praise for the film, it is not without its flaws. Top of the list would be The Caller's rationalization for what he does. It's a rather thin premise for his actions, and his reasoning for choosing Stu is even weaker. Perhaps we are to infer that he is losing any remaining sense of reality in this action? Further, the final resolution is sadly predictable—though fortunately not until relatively near the finale—and thus a somewhat unsatisfying end to a taut film. Lastly, readers in our jury room may recall a statement I made regarding the length of the film: 81 minutes. In my mind, I'm usually disappointed when a film runs less than 90 minutes. I feel I've been somewhat cheated for my dollar. As an esteemed colleague stated, what's so important about length? A film is as long as necessary. And, he is right of course, though I still feel a touch short-changed here, especially considering Fox's MSRP on the disc is $27.98.
Phone Booth is a gripping thriller with a bravura performance by Collin Farrell that will keep you riveted to your set. In the end, I wish there was more story to tell. Though a bit light on bonus materials, the excellent transfers and fun commentary combine to make the disc worthy of addition to your collection. I therefore, somewhat to my surprise, heartily recommend a purchase of this disc. Just make sure you don't pay full price.
In light of mitigating circumstances, Phone Booth is found not guilty on all counts.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Joel Schumacher
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