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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003

Forgive me, for I have sinned

Phone Booth

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Joel Schumacher
Running time: 81 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 22
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Phone Booth" is a mean and bullying film. It sets out to punish one man for relatively small sins (i.e. lying, almost cheating on his wife) in a wrathful, finger-wagging kind of way. We see the man ruthlessly exposed, humiliated and threatened with death. Like Job in the Old Testament, he gets stripped of worldly success in a matter of a few screen minutes. His smooth, urbane personality goes through a massive meltdown and his once-arrogant attitude in conversation is reduced to a scared, incoherent babble. All this because he was given to fibbing and had thoughts about sleeping with another woman.

News photo
Colin Farrell in "Phone Booth"

Director Joel Schumacher, known for such expensive extravaganzas as "Batman & Robin," seems to relish every frame in this (uncharacteristically) small, tight vehicle that comes off as a modern fable with medieval undertones. In this way, "Phone Booth" recalls "Se7en," also a story about ordinary people being mutilated for routine sins.

The main protagonist is Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a Broadway press agent who seems to spend entire workdays just schmoozing on his cell phone. Stu is such a Cool Dude that he even has a gofer (Keith Nobbs) trailing after him as he strolls around midtown Manhattan faking, boasting and lying his way into deals. On 53rd and 8th, Stu comes to a halt, ditches his gofer and walks into a phone booth. He takes out change, removes his wedding ring and gets Pamela (Katie Holmes) on the line, an actress he ostensibly represents, but only wants to sleep with. He uses this pay phone since he doesn't want the calls to show up on the monthly cell phone bill scrutinized by his wife, Kelly (Rhada Mitchell).

So, yeah, Stu is a bit of a sleaze. His arrogance is pretty disgusting and his language is pure NYC sewage. Still, it's hard not to sympathize with the guy when after the call to Pamela, the phone rings and Stu suddenly finds himself talking to a sniper. This sniper (in a brilliant voice-only performance by Kiefer Sutherland) informs Stu that he has a high-powered rifle aimed at his torso and if Stu attempts to hang up or call for help, he will be killed. Apparently, the only way Stu can save himself is to own up to his sleaziness and come clean before his wife and the rest of the world. But he has to do this on the phone, in the booth. Or bang, he's dead.

Farrell's intensity never flags in a difficult role that requires him to talk nonstop into a pay phone. At first he attempts to bluster through the situation (sweating and speaking through gritted teeth), but when the sniper kills a bystander and makes it look like Stu is the perpetrator, he realizes that his only chance of survival lies in things like, uh, sincerity and integrity. The sniper's sadism reaches peak levels as he taunts Stu to call his wife, Pamela, the office -- and admit to his secret cravings.

The premise, though interesting, is not enough to carry the film, probably because Stu's sins are so minor in nature (look at what the Californian governor gets away with). There's a weird sense of disbelief when the sniper insists that Stu admits to his lust for Pamela -- obviously, this would have made a lot more sense had he actually consummated his lust. Moralizing about marital fidelity seems to be a Hollywood specialty since "Fatal Attraction," but Schumacher takes the point too far.

"Phone Booth" could be a window on current American psyche -- the sniper is both supreme judge and Stu's conscience as he pokes and nags mercilessly about Stu's expensive tastes in clothing, but cheap taste in his choice of hotel for a secret tryst; at his rudeness to people like waiters and delivery men; and at his glib, two-timing methods of business.

Of course, the most unforgivable sin of all is Stu's "infidelity." If a man is punished for flirting on the phone (and the bit about taking off his wedding ring to do so is bizarre and just not in keeping with Stu's character), then what about, say, e-mail? It's kind of fun to imagine rings being taken off all across the States as people flex their fingers to log on.

In that case morally righteous snipers would have to hack everyone's computers and force them to type confessions nonstop -- rather a bummer on the fingers.

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