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Phone Booth

Can you hear me now?

It sure sucks when life imitates art. Last November, Fox wanted to release a little thriller called <i>Phone Booth</i> about a man trapped in one because a sniper threatens to shoot him if he steps out. But then a real sniper started raising havoc in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC - so Fox postponed the opening till spring. When you think about it, it's still probably not the best time to release it, but they can't wait forever can they?

Irish-born Colin Farrell expertly plays Bronx- speaking Stu Shepherd, a hard-working, unscrupulous PR hound who's got "big player wannabe" written all over him. The world is his office and when the film opens he's strolling brazenly through Times Square, pitiful assistant (Keith Nobbs) in tow, and barking into multiple cell phones. He's sealing deal after deal and doesn't care what kinds of lies he has to tell in the process.

In essence, he exudes all the qualities you see in people who gab pretentiously (and loudly) on cell phones. You wish they'd get their comeuppance someday. And so he does.

You may be wondering why a style-conscious, cell-toting man would be caught dead on a Manhattan sidewalk in an honest-to-goodness
phone booth (with a door that closes, natch). Happily, the script explains things just enough so that the legitimacy of this gimmicky premise doesn't nag you throughout the movie. Truth be told, the setup simmered in screenwriter Larry Cohen's head for twenty years, and by the time he figured out how to make it work, the pervasiveness of cell phones almost made the whole idea obsolete.

So Stu ends up in a phone booth - the last one in Manhattan, apparently - and makes his important call. After he hangs up, it rings and he answers it, even though he's not expecting to hear from anyone. Funny how a ringing phone begs to be answered.

That's where Stu's troubles begin. The man on the other end of the line <i>is</i> calling for him, and it's Stu's day to find religion.

Trapped inside the phone booth, he must do whatever The Caller (Kiefer Sutherland) demands of him. The Caller isn't just any weirdo; he's an omniscient psycho. He knows all about Stu's life - the lies he tells his loved ones and the people he manipulates - and The Caller aims to have his way with him. In short, Stu meets his evil twin.

Actually, The Caller's mission is an intriguing one: He seeks out egotistical bastards who ruin other people's lives and he kills them. (There's a veiled reference to Enron execs that I'm sure audiences will appreciate). In Stu he sees a chance first to humiliate him unmercifully before pulling the trigger. For starters, he makes Stu call his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) and confess about his
mistress Pamela (Katie Holmes).

The Caller's voice doesn't just come out of the phone; it looms ethereally like a vengeful and demented god, taunting Stu with an evil laugh and playing mind games with twisted logic. For once Stu does not control the situation he's in. The Caller may be one mean freak, but there's perverse pleasure in watching him torment poor Stu, who repents for his sins.

Indeed, Stu and The Caller make such an interesting couple that the supporting characters almost get in the way. After The Caller shoots at people who horn their way into his little pas de deux with Stu, the police arrive on the scene and Capt. Raimey (Forest Whitaker) injects a dose of sympathy into the frenzied situation on the street. Although unknowingly outsmarted by the hidden sniper, Raimey attempts to trace the call while stalling for time.

The ending may feel contrived, but the beginning is no less so. Director Joel Schumacher filmed <i>Phone Booth</i> in twelve days and it shows. He keeps the pace lively by interspersing energetic shots of the bustling street (shot in downtown LA, actually) with tight close-ups of the telecom-tethered captive.

With a curious narration that begins the film, <i>Phone Booth</i> exhibits the qualities of a fable. Not that Stu is Mr. Everyman, but this film echoes the newfound paranoia we collectively experience in big-city America. The control-freak sniper looms large as the hidden face of terrorism that aims to control our lives because of transgressions we're either unaware of or refuse to believe in. It sure seems like life imitating art again.

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Phone Booth
Rated R
1 hour 20 minutes

Colin Farrell
Forest Whitaker
Keith Nobbs
Katie Holmes
Kiefer Sutherland

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