Even ten years later, the gaping plot holes and logical inconsistencies of this Joel Schumacher thriller are bugging the hell out of Raffi Nakashian in this week’s re-view.
Pop quiz, hotshot: A phone rings in a booth on a crowded Manhattan street corner. You pick it up and a strange voice tells you that there is a rifle pointed at you and that if you leave the booth, you’ll be shot dead. If you cry out for help, you’ll be shot dead. What do you do? What do you do?
Movie villains come up with the most contrived scenarios to torture their hapless victims, don’t they? This one sounds almost as implausible as a madman strapping a bomb to a bus that can’t slow down; but as complicated and unlikely as his bomb-on-a-bus scenario was, we never had to question why Dennis Hopper bothered to go to all that trouble. He had a very clear reason for torturing Keanu Reeves in Speed. That pesky cop foiled his extortion plans and left him for dead. Wow, I’d be pretty annoyed, too. The bus-bomb was sweet revenge. The faceless shooter in Phone Booth has a mysterious motive, and much of the movie’s hook was simply finding out why this man was trapped in that phone booth. Had he wronged the mysterious shooter in some way? Was he a random target for an unhinged lunatic? I’ll just have to pay twelve dollars adjusted for inflation and find out, thought I.
Like most people that saw the trailer and were drawn in by the premise, I wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery. Even the identity of the man behind the rifle was made to be quite a tease. Who was on the other end of the phone? (“Neat, the guy from 24!” we’d later think, mildly amused.) Much like the best questions posed by the most memorable on-screen mysteries like Lost, Twin Peaks, or Citizen Kane, the answer to those questions are never quite as interesting as the questions themselves. In fact, sometimes they’re an earth-shattering disappointment.
But that movie hasn’t been written yet, I presume, and Phone Booth shifts its focus from phone booths to our protagonist Stu. He’s a stereotypically sleazy Manhattan suit that spends the first five minutes on screen lying and manipulating people before getting into the phone booth, and then tells a pizza delivery guy who is trying to give him a free, delicious pizza to fuck off. Then he calls him fat. He dials Katie Holmes and tries to cheat on his wife with her. It’s a good thing Colin Farrell has great hair and that Irish charm, otherwise he’d be a pretty damn unlikable character already. What is wrong with you, movie? Why are you trying so hard to alienate me?
But these details aren’t what make the film ultimately disappointing. It’s the answer to the riddle that teased us ten years ago: why is Stu trapped in a phone booth with a gun pointed at him? It doesn’t take long to find out. Stu gets a call from his mysterious sniper who berates him about turning away that pizza. After all, he’s going to be in there for a while. This sniper knows very intimate details about Stu’s life, like his name, address, his wife’s workplace, and his attempted-mistress’s phone number. If he knows so much about Stu, he should have known that he wouldn’t eat a pizza in the middle of the day, look at his physique! Stu is obviously a narcissist that watches his diet. Does Panera deliver? They do egg-whites only if you ask for them.
This gunman has been watching Stu, and if he leaves the phone booth, he will be shot. What heinous crimes has he committed to warrant the obsessive attention of a highly trained gunman for weeks on end? This man apparently knows every detail about his life. We as the audience want to know what would drive a man to terrorize him this way. It takes the next hour for us to watch a man with a gun to his head tell his wife that he’s been having impure thoughts.
That’s all. Impure thoughts. He hasn’t actually cheated on his wife. You’d think he’d at least have rounded the bases if he’s gotten a complete stranger mad enough to threaten to kill him. He hasn’t even left home plate! Stu flirts with a girl from his phone booth, and this guy sits in his room and fumes about it. Then we as the audience get to listen to Kiefer Sutherland’s self-satisfied laugh as he makes Stu call the police captain impotent. What did that poor policeman do to deserve that? He seems so nice. Have you ever seen Forest Whitaker upset? He’s like a sad puppy, it’s heartbreaking.
Joking aside, this is really the core failure of this movie. Stu is neither a relatable innocent, nor is he a horrible person. He’s just an asshole. We’re surrounded by assholes every day, but few of us wish death upon them. At the opposite end, our protagonists should at least be somewhat likeable. While I was watching this movie for the second time, I wondered why the sniper didn’t instead torture the pimp that works twenty feet away from the phone booth. Stu has a good job, pays his taxes, is occasionally rude to people, and fantasizes about cheating on his wife. That other guy sells women for sex. If our sniper claims to be on some kind of moral crusade, then he definitely has his priorities out of order. Granted, the pimp eventually gets shot, but only to mess with Stu. What did Stu ever do??
Stu doesn’t deserve to die, but he’s not likeable enough for the audience to want anything good to happen to him either. You end up just kind of feeling sorry for him. To make things worse, the growth he experiences over the course of the movie is because he literally has a gun to his head.
Not that it matters. There are so many glaring plot holes that it was impossible to suspend disbelief even for its short running time, mainly due to the unbelievable incompetence of the police captain. I can’t fathom why dozens of police officers spend hours surrounding a man inside a transparent box with no visible weapon. He doesn’t have a hostage, he’s apparently just talking on the phone. Why do they set up a perimeter and snipers around him? Just approach him with guns drawn and pull him out of the booth. They just stare at him talking on the phone with their guns pointed at him. Every time there is another intense close-up of Colin Farrell’s face as he pleads with the sniper, I just imagine the police officers silently watching him talk for minutes at a time, waiting for a signal from their captain to approach him. Or does every arrest take place with officers waiting patiently for a suspect to climb into their squad cars of their own accord?
How about the fact that the police captain listens in on Stu’s conversation with the sniper, hears him say “Please don’t hurt my wife,” and continues to casually carry on a conversation with her in the middle of the street? He eventually tells her to get in a car, which he must consider to be sufficient protection against a lunatic sniper that could be in any one of hundreds of windows, but then she’s able to just get in and out of the car at will to listen to Stu’s tearful “I’m a big fat phony” speech at the end.