'Phone Booth' should have been hung up

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2003

Guy held captive in a phone booth by a sniper. As a 10-word Hollywood pitch, it sounds like a cool and novel scenario.

As executed in Joel Schum-acher's ''Phone Booth,'' starring Colin Farrell as the victim and Kiefer Sutherland as the largely unseen gunman, the idea holds about as much substance as a busy signal and proves more annoying than a telemarketer calling at supper time to hawk time-shares in Florida.

Stories told largely in confined spaces can work. Alfred Hitch-cock's ''Lifeboat'' and Ron Howard's ''Apollo 13'' are notable examples.

But sunken-ship survivors lost at sea or astronauts lost in space make for grand drama. All Schumacher and screenwriter Larry Cohen offer in ''Phone Booth'' are an ill-defined villain and a patsy so unlikable his fate is a matter of indifference to audiences.

''Phone Booth'' had been scheduled for release in November but was delayed because of the sniper shootings around Washington, D.C., that killed 13 people. The plot of ''Phone Booth'' is so dissimilar that it's doubtful those shootings will resonate in many viewers' minds while watching the movie.

Farrell, who starred in Schumacher's splendid Vietnam drama ''Tigerland,'' plays Stu Shepard, a vile, deceitful, second-rate publicist strutting Manhattan's streets with cell phone to ear, angling for headlines and magazine covers for his clients.

Every day, Stu stops at one of the city's last remaining enclosed phone booths to call one of his clients, an aspiring actress (Katie Holmes) he's trying to maneuver into bed. He uses the pay phone so his wife (Radha Mitchell) won't see the calls on his cellular bills.

Stu is perpetually operating, constantly dissembling. In every respect, he's a disagreeable little twit, which makes it nearly impossible to empathize with this heel over what happens one particular day.

The phone immediately rings after Stu hangs up on his daily flirtation. Stu absentmindedly answ-ers, and out comes Sutherland's menacing voice, noting that a ''ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?''

The caller quickly convinces Stu that if he hangs up, he'll be shot dead. And Stu realizes his seemingly omniscient tormentor knows all about him and has appointed himself avenging angel for Stu's petty transgressions.

Forest Whitaker rounds out the cast as a police captain leading the response after the sniper opens fire and witnesses mistakenly report the crazy guy in the phone booth as the gunman.

Farrell and the other on-screen characters are pretty much bound to shrillness, which deafens and deadens the audience to the few emotional nuances Cohen's dialogue might hold.

Sutherland's vocals make for the movie's best performance. He's given nothing more to utter than standard-issue patter of the misanthropic madman, but Sutherland delivers with an icy wickedness that give the cliches more weight than they really have.

Schumacher tries to flesh out the skeletal concept with noise and fury: Urban chaos outside the phone booth, media mayhem sparked by the standoff, turgid editing that includes tiresome images inset within the main action.

Minus the credits, ''Phone Booth'' thankfully runs only 75 minutes or so. Yet even at that brisk length, listening to Meryl Streep's dial-tone impersonation from ''Adaptation'' for the same duration would prove more satisfying.

''Phone Booth,'' a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R for pervasive language and some violence. Running time: 81 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.



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