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Phone Booth (2003)
Director: Joel Scumacher

review by Paul Higson

'Screenplay by Larry Cohen.' That should be enough to draw anyone to a film. Alas, one has to be an aficionado of midnight movie culture in order to rightly ascribe the name to conceptual storylines, lively characters, a high level of incidence and abrasive, often politicised, wit. It has been four years since Jim Carrey was introduced to the original screenplay, heralded it, convinced the right parties to cough up quick for it and envision himself as the PR weasel trapped for most of the running time in a telephone booth. Carrey had just come off Man In The Moon (1999), the story of the unfathomable comic 'genius' Andy Kaufman, and may well have met Cohen in trying to learn more on the man whom Cohen had cast as a New York city policeman who turns his handgun on a St Patrick's Day procession and crowd under the instruction of "our Lord" in God Told Me To (1978), a film that also began with a shockingly casual sniper on the water tower sequence. It may only have been a hop, a skip and a click of the heels to, "Hey, just so happens I have another New York tale involving a sniper." The script was always a problem for Hollywood, what with an A-list star wanting to commit to a film that could only come out looking trim; a man, a phone booth, a street; how do we jazz that one up. Cohen's name was never attached as the director, perhaps because it was understood that the proud author would have played it straight with no frills. It could well have been that the delays were designed in order to relocate a major star to a vehicle that he could guarantee greater returns from and in order to appoint a director with the correct Hollywood sensibility; that man the ever-gangrene Joel Schumacher. Schumacher brings his unnecessary, heavy-handed touch to what should have been a simply told story, book-ending a solid tale with whiz-bang, speedy, noisy, cluttered shots, with zooms into and back out of the stratosphere and an inside skitter of mixed imagery rather than the intensifying concentration of subtleties of human behaviour that Cohen directing could have built back in.
   Colin Farrell wrestles much of the script back from Schumacher's careless hands in a grandstanding performance as Stu the slimy user, a young publicist snaking up a reputation as a fixer in Manhattan media and arts circles. The adrenalin of his success makes a bigger bastard of him by the minute. But it is all about to come unstuck as he makes his daily visit to the telephone booth to set-up a hotel rendezvous with a starlet, switching then to the mobile to excuse meeting the wife. Someone has been observing his regular appearances at the booth and has equally done their homework. Creating situations and controlling the results, an incredibly malicious sniper confines Stu to the booth, manipulating and tormenting the young man. The script is a mix of magnetic and organic twists and of the super-consciously implausible, forgivable because of the entertainment value and drawn together tightly in the believability of Farrell's phenomenal playing.
   Sadly the burdens from elsewhere pour down heavily. Schumacher is a screaming example of Hollywood insecurity. For crying out loud Schumacher, most of the film is beholden to the one street, leave it there. As it is, Schumacher appears bored, has, at least, the sense to know that touching up the story even slightly will knock the tale horribly off-balance, does not have the talent for building upon character and leaves the supporting characters as written. He therefore rushes through, to heck with the careful construction of the images, which is most of what this job had become, do you know how difficult it is getting a shooting permit in this city, and no doubt with his mind on the next movie project. The sniper's voice (Kiefer Sutherland) is of deliciously cruel intonation but is overlaid on the soundtrack unfettered, thick and immediate whereas it would have been creepier and more effective crackling with a little distance down the line, tinny in the earpiece; but no, we've paid for Kiefer Sutherland we want the audience left in no doubt that it is him. The infrared spot of the rifle settling on its targets is inexcusably, poorly superimposed, failing prismatic lines of travel, ignoring obstructions, creases and shadows. CGI? They may as well have had winos dotting the individual celluloid frames with red felt tip.
   One educated in the scriptwriter cannot help but imagine the film as it could have been if directed by Cohen, a well-balanced no-nonsense thriller with raw visuals and naked power. Blind Alley, his overlooked 1985 film (made back to back with Special Effects, also 1985) comes to mind, though, while good in plot, it was not as novel as Phone Booth. One suspects also that this script goes a little further back than four years, to a time before the mobile phone took off. Point of fact four years ago mobile phones were still not in everyone's pocket but one can imagine the necessary rewrites to update the premise. It is possible that in the original draft the victim was chosen at random. The desperate need to retain the booth in the world of the cellular phone required an explanation though anyone familiar with the brilliant language of Dial R For Rat will be well aware that Cohen was never arrested for turns of plot and sharp dialogue and re-jigs would have proved no problem other than too much material with his imagination enflamed further with each subsequent draft. The supporting cast is made up of reliable players but under Schumacher's instruction they are left with the minimum of character, reducing them to comic simpletons. Cohen helming would have kept the humour but would have seen them all infused with a natural and likeable bearing. At the end of the day this is a good script and a great performance, not given serious support from any other quarter. It could and should have been a better film.
Phone Booth

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