Revisiting Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth

After the misfire of Bad Company, director Joel Schumacher went back to basics with the real-time thriller, Phone Booth...

Stu, if you hang up, I will kill you.” – The Caller

The Recap

After the horror show that was Bad Company, Joel Schumacher again had to try to find a way of surviving a flop, and much like the fallout after Batman & Robin, he decided to take a turn in a different direction, making his next movie on a small budget and an even smaller cast.

New York City publicist Stu Shepherd (Colin Farrell) thinks he has it all and knows it all. About to embark on an affair with an actress called Pam (Katie Holmes), he calls her from a phone booth to keep his contact untraceable by his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell).

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While in the phone booth, a pizza delivery guy attempts to give him a pizza. Stu dismisses him rudely. When his call is finished, the phone rings and Stu picks it up. On the other end of the line a voice (Kiefer Sutherland) tells him he should have accepted the pizza as he will need all his energy for what is about to come. Taking the call for a prank, Stu is about to hang up when the caller mentions his wife by name.

Shaken by this, he answers the phone again when it rings, and is confronted with the caller again, this time demanding that Stu tell his wife he is cheating on her, but not before the caller calls Pam and, while Stu is on speakerphone, tells her that the man she is enthralled with is not only married but only after her for one thing. After the call is disconnected the caller demands that Stu tell his wife the truth before he does.

Angered by the turn of events unfolding before, him Stu calls his wife, but before he can admit the truth he is distracted by two prostitutes who are demanding the use of the phone. Becoming agitated by the call and this distraction, he hangs up on his wife and yells at the women to leave him alone. The phone rings again and the caller tells Stu not to hang up again or he will shoot him.

Still annoyed that they cannot use the phone, the prostitutes come back with their pimp and he attacks the booth with a baseball bat. The caller asks Stu if he would like his help and he agrees, which results in the pimp getting shot.

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Believing that Stu is to blame, the women call the police and the booth is soon surrounded with officers, as Captain Ed Ramey (Forest Whitaker) takes charge of the situation.

With news vans turning up, the police know they cannot just shoot Stu. Instead, they try to coax him out. Stu doesn’t believe the police can put the shooting down to him, until the caller informs him that he has planted a gun in the top of the booth, making him the only suspect.

As the crowds grow bigger, Stu’s wife arrives and the caller demands he tell her the truth, which he does. The caller than asks Stu to pick one of the two women, threatening to kill one to avoid his further temptation. Scared for the safety of both women, Stu calls his wife on his cell phone so both she and the police can hear that he is being held against his will.

While the police work on tracking down the caller, Stu confesses to everybody he is not the man he professes to be, and then tells the caller the police have traced him and are coming for him. Enraged by this, the caller decides to shoot Stu’s wife, prompting Stu to run out of the booth, screaming for the caller to shoot him instead.

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Stu is shot just as the police break into the caller’s location and find a dead body, which is the pizza delivery guy from earlier in the day. Having only been shot by a rubber bullet by the police, Stu lies recovering in an ambulance when a man approaches him and apologises for killing the pizza boy and says that, should his newfound honesty not remain, he will be hearing from him again.

Thoughts and Reaction

Taking place entirely in real time, Phone Booth is an interesting if not overly original film, that rode the wave of the early couple of years of 24. Plus, the Johnny Depp vehicle Nick Of Time had tried real time the decade before, although not altogether successfully.

Phone Booth‘s concept was first pitched in the 60s to Alfred Hitchcock, who liked the idea, but without a real reason to keep the protagonist in the booth the idea fell into the wasteland of other such scripts, only resurfacing in the 90s when writer Larry Cohen came up with the idea of a sniper controlling the situation from afar.

With the story set and director and studio on board (notably the same studio that also produces 24), filming began in Los Angeles and was completed within ten days. The short production not only saved money but also instilled an almost palpable sense of panic on set, which helped the performances seem more realistic, as they really were up against the clock.

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The first most notable thing about the movie is the fact that Schumacher’s signature style is nowhere to be seen. Rather, the cinematography is more naturalistic, and at points it doesn’t feel like you are watching a movie, but rather a high quality CCTV feed, making for a more edge-of-your-seat experience.

I would also imagine that on such a short shoot it would be near impossible for Schumacher to set up the kind of shots he is famous for, and in fairness, the movie itself is much better for this.

Although there is a strong ensemble cast involved in this movie, the majority of heavy lifting comes from Colin Farrell, who almost single handily carries it from start to finish. While his interactions with various other cast members move the story along, it is his plight and his reactions that set the tone. Although I am not a huge fan of Farrell’s work in and around this period, I think he does an admirable job and deserves the credit he received upon the movie’s release.

Having said all that, however, Phone Booth is just one of those movies I really don’t see what all the fuss was about. When I first watched it I was extremely underwhelmed and disappointed, as it had been so hyped up. Watching it again recently I just cannot shift that feeling.

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I think my main bugbear is that it rides on the success of 24 (even casting its leading man as the villain) and, although it keeps your interest for the duration of the movie, the big screen just doesn’t do real time as well as the small one.

I also found the plot to be a decent enough thriller but with an awful payoff. Each twist and turn could be seen coming a mile off, and at the end you know the caller isn’t dead and would end up having the last word. This, however, is not the fault of this movie in particular, but of all Hollywood scripts, which now seem to have lost the ability to surprise audiences anymore. The ones that do deserve all the attention they receive.

Thankfully for Schumacher, most people didn’t feel the way I do and Phone Booth was a sizeable success upon its release, giving him a much needed box office hit.

Schumacher’s next project would again be a step away from anything he had done in the past, a biopic of a journalist that ended up paying with her life for a cause she believed in. Next time I will be looking at Veronica Guerin

Phone Booth Key Info:

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Released: 4th April 2003 (US) / 18thApril 2003 (UK)Distributed By: 20th Century FoxBudget: $13,000,000Box Office Gross: $97,837,138Best DVD Edition: Phone Booth DVD