There's always been something a little creepy about telephone booths, the way those walls of glass close in on you. Constantly looking over your shoulder, you feel both claustrophobic and exposed. Hitchcock makes memorable use of one in The Birds, when Tippi Hedren, seeking refuge, becomes trapped like a canary in a cage. And director Joel Schumacher tries to make memorable use of one in Phone Booth, where Colin Farrell spends the better part of an hour and a half reassessing his life. That Farrell's Stu Shepard ' a New York City publicist who resembles the Tony Curtis character in Sweet Smell of Success ' has a telescopic-sighted rifle aimed at him the entire time certainly helps focus his thoughts. A high-concept thriller, Phone Booth is a morality tale for the Age of Nokia. Stu, who lives and dies by the phone, falls victim to what may be the worst practical joke this side of "Crank Yankers."
When we first meet Stu, he's parading through Times Square, a cell phone glued to his ear and a personal assistant (with a cell phone glued to his ear) trailing behind him. In his Italian suit and raspberry-colored shirt, Stu's the mayor of Spin City; he garners exposure for his clients by building pyramids of lies. But Stu also lies to himself ' takes off his wedding ring when dialing up a woman who he insists will not become his mistress, for example. Of course, he does the dialing from a phone booth, so that his wife won't be able to find out about the calls. Clearly, the man is due for a major moral reckoning, and it arrives in the form of Kiefer Sutherland's voice ' playful, menacing and maniacal, like that of all movie psychos. "If you hang up, I will kill you," Stu's guilty conscience (for that's what he is, isn't he?) says, establishing his bona fides by shooting Stu in the ear lobe from a nearby window. Luckily, it isn't Stu's phone ear.
Like Speed, Phone Booth drives its gimmicky premise all the way to the finish line, keeping both feet on the accelerator. Hitchcock would have kept one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake, of course. And Phone Booth does have its moments of relative calm, but how do you relax when there's a red laser-dot roaming your forehead? To his credit, Schumacher, who turned the action sequences in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin into incomprehensible blurs, does a much better job here of negotiating time and space. He opens up the movie by using split-screens (shades of Pillow Talk), and he uses fast motion to capture the sense of an entire world hooked up to speed dial. But why doesn't Phone Booth do for phone booths what Psycho did for showers? Why isn't it more harrowing? More tension-filled? Why don't we feel like we're trapped inside that glass coffin with Stu?
One reason is that Schumacher almost never takes us in there, preferring to shoot from outside. Another reason is Sutherland's vocal performance, which has trouble riding that fine line between friend and fiend. Think of Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Or John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire, where it felt like there was a real nutcase on the phone. As for Farrell, he does a good job of showing us someone caught in a tight spot, allowing Stu's dignity to rise and fall as the situation develops. Farrell has a feral quality about him, a rabbity jumpiness, which makes him utterly believable as a PR flack. And I like the way he answers the phone: "You got Stu." He's about to be gotten, all right. And Phone Booth would like to be one gotcha moment after another, but it should perhaps have taken a clue from those Beltway snipers, who paused between gotcha moments. That's how you build tension.