PHONE BOOTH (2003)
Directed by Joel Schumaker
Starring Collin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes, Radha Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland
Length 80 minutes
Stu Shepard (Farrell) is a media consultant whose bark is worse than his bite. Basing his business on lies and subterfuge, he even lacks scruples in regard to his marriage. Stu is working on graduating one of his cuter clients, Pam (Holmes) into mistress status. (She doesn't know he's married.)
After calling Pam from the usual payphone (so her number is not detected on his cell phone), Stu picks up the phone again when it rings. On the other end is a patient-voiced man who turns out to be the voice of fate. Soon Stu realizes that the voice belongs to an off-kilter sniper who seeks to force confession of deceit and lust out of him and deliver an execution bullet as just punishment.
Stu cannot leave the phone booth, tell the crowd or the surrounding police what is really happening to him, and he cannot evade or fast-talk his way out of this deal.
Stu is cocky, dishonest, fast-talking, and brimming with pretense and propped appearances. Barely disguising his Bronx upbringing, Stu seems to have convinced himself that he can convince others that he has everything "together." Farrell fills the role perfectly within the film's first few moments.
From the moment Stu enters the phone booth the stage is set: the film takes place only here till the end. I am reminded of shipwreck scenarios, prison cells, stuck elevators, lost boats (like in the Steinbeck-based, Hitch-directed Lifeboat), and even "The Pit and the Pendulum." Claustrophobia, prolonged stress, and conflicting personalities all plant seeds of explosion and even destruction of many types. But Stu's situation is physically solitary: he is prodded and manipulated and stressed by a conscience-like voice. This solo situation also limits the film direction, demanding creativity and genius to make it work (as was done in the first half of Zemeckis' Cast Away).
As tension mounts, the lifeboat veers into worse waters, the pendulum sweeps closer, the prisoner begins to crack under his plight's weight: appease this maniac somehow and don't get shot. But appeals are futile. The voice wants confession.
The film thrilled me with its perfect, tense pitch and its convincing pace, disorder, and moral importance. Finally a director is not ashamed to posit such a dilemma: the shit hitting the fan for a man not only blinded by his own ambition and conceit (which is old-hat plotwise) but also for his dishonesty in marriage and love. Too many contemporary films revel in infidelity and even present it as "not a big deal." Phone Booth's premise is the contrary: the poison of such behavior is ultra-deadly. Another film that portrayed this concept well was Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful, starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, depicting a wife's disgusting affair with a young man. A film that was well-done but frustratingly favorable toward lifelong deceit was Bridges of Madison County.
Stu is not wholly ruined by his excesses and lies. Somewhat early in his ordeal he is realizing his folly, quite apart from the impending doom upon him. His realization is genuine; it takes on a life of its own. Despite the voice's threats and excruciating demands, Stu learns that his confession and repentance are crucial for his soul's redemption aside from his body's safety, regardless if he survives or loses his life in that phone booth. When Stu accepts this, so does the viewer. Farrell managed an amazing, moving performance in this particular development that marks him as a formidable actor. Reckoning visits the protag and salvation is won. And the accurate prospect of a lunatic being needed to defend fidelity and honor is a sober comment on our times and confused culture.
What better endorsement can I offer but to make my own confession: Phone Booth made me weep - and it continues to have such an effect each time I watch it. Especially when Stu breaks down, looks right at his bewildered wife in the witnessing crowd of onlookers and police, and says, "I've been dressing up as something I'm not for so long, I'm so afraid you won't like what's underneath. But here I am...just flesh and blood...and weakness."
review by D. Herrle 8/2003
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