Fixing Flawed Films

Phone Booth

Give me a pair of scissors and some tape and I can significantly improve some movies — those whose major flaws are easily corrected with some minor surgery. The movies might not be great when I’m done with them, but they’ll be a hell of a lot better than what I started with. Snip off the first 40 minutes of Contact, for instance, and you’ve eliminated the dual problems of bloat and mawkish motivation. Sure, you’ve still got the awful ending(s) to deal with, but otherwise it’s fantastic.

Phone Booth is another case. I watched the movie and thought, “How did they fuck that up?”

The premise is great Hollywood High Concept. A sleazy publicist named Stuart answers the phone in New York City’s lone remaining Superman Changing Station, and it turns out that there’s a sniper on the other end of the line with a rifle pointed at him. The gunman knows the most intimate details of Stuart’s life, including about the woman with whom he wants to have an affair, and threatens to kill him if he hangs up. Does the sniper want to off Stuart, toy with him, or reform him? When the antagonist shoots and kills a pimp who’s trying to get Stuart off the phone, the cops and television crews swarm the scene, unaware of the sniper.

The script is by Larry Cohen (apparently based on an idea he had more than three decades ago), and it does nobody any favors. The marginal protagonist is such an asshole that his fate is not really much of an audience concern. (Shoot the fucker!) And Stuart’s emotional progression is neither believable (again, the asshole problem) nor satisfying (the asshole issue yet again). None of the other characters is given any development at all, and while it’s refreshing that Cohen doesn’t offer a cheap explanation for the sniper’s behavior or motivation, some hint at his rationale and background would give the audience something to work with psychologically in trying to figure out what’s coming next. And the ending strains credulity even after you’ve swallowed the unlikely premise.

Joel Schumacher is generally reviled as a director, but here he’s serviceable, although I would have done some things differently. For instance, I think it would have been more shocking, interesting, suspenseful, and fair to never show the sniper’s point-of-view, in part because the audience doesn’t get a peek at him until the end. (If you can see what the bad guy sees, but you can’t see the bad guy, generally somebody’s cheating. To see POV in a similar situation done correctly, watch Se7en again.)

As for the performers, there’s really only one on-screen, and it’s Mr. Eyebrows, Colin Farrell. I’ll say only that as Stuart gets more hysterical over the course of the movie, Farrell begins to sound an awful lot like Bobcat Goldthwait, and flashbacks to Police Academy 2 are not a good thing in what’s supposed to be a thriller.

But, as someone from Spinal Tap once said, “That’s nitpicking, isn’t it?” The concept is king here, and it’s compelling enough to make it easy to skip over many of the movie’s faults.

But not all of them. To start, the movie’s opening basically justifies the existence of an NYC anachronism — an honest-to-goodness phone booth — and serves as an excuse for not-so-special effects. Granted, cutting out this opening would have put Phone Booth perilously close to family-film running time, but the movie would work better starting on the street — boom, no credits, following the fast-talking Stuart as he juggles cell phones and berates his sheepish intern. It would plunge the audience into the movie.

That’s a minor change compared to what I’d do next. Instead of having the sniper’s crystal-clear voice dominate the soundtrack like God from above, I’d run it through a phone. For one thing, it would add realism to a movie that needs credibility wherever it can get it. More importantly, it would put the audience squarely in Stuart’s position; we would hear things as he hears them.

And the distortion of a phone line would make less apparent problems in the sniper voice-over performance by Keifer Sutherland. The casting of Sutherland as a villain is always a good choice, but that’s assuming you can see him, because his menace is primarily visual — that sneer, and those piercing eyes. When Sutherland cackles in Phone Booth, you don’t buy it for a minute; it sounds like some comfortable actor trying (not very hard) to sound unbalanced in a recording studio. It’s laughable, but also shockingly easy to remedy.

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