You hardly have to be a New Yorker to notice how fake New York City looks at the movies these days. The sidewalks are real, the stock tickers are real, and so are the Times Square chain stores, but the moment you actually watch a scene in a movie like ”Ransom” or ”Spider-Man” or ”How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” you’re confronted with a concrete landscape so clean and airbrushed it might as well be Toronto (which, in fact, it probably is) or the setting for a musical (which, in the next few years, it probably will be). Phone Booth, directed by Joel Schumacher (”Falling Down”) from a script by the veteran cult B-movie darling Larry Cohen (”It’s Alive”), was shot mostly in Los Angeles, and it offers what may be the most prefab, hey-this-is-just-a-prop New York street sets since ”Eyes Wide Shut.” Yet the film, paradoxically, is drenched in nostalgia for the squalid, festering combat zone of pre-’90s Manhattan — the sociopathic scuzzpit where anything can happen, and does. It’s an energetic stunt of a movie, and it wants to make us sweat like it’s 1974.
Early on, there are documentarylike shots of street-corner rappers and people barking feverishly into cell phones, and you feel as if you’re getting a raw dose of the newly teched-out jungle. Moments later, the camera lasers in on one of the local animals, Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a hyperkinetic media publicist in a raspberry shirt and black suit. With the help of one of those endless, choreographed traveling shots that are meant to impress us with a filmmaker’s immediacy, we follow Stu as he flatters a restaurant owner, tries to finesse one of his clients into the pages of What’s Up? magazine, and promises four Britney Spears tickets to a cop in exchange for a gossip tidbit, which he promptly phones into the New York Post’s Page Six.
Stu, who natters on in the sort of Bronx Italian accent that’s part threat and part whine, might be a modern-day version of Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco in ”Sweet Smell of Success,” except that Curtis’ pleading sleaze was, in 1957, a real novelty. At this point, Stu comes off as such a familiar archetype that he looks like he should have his own reality show on E! Before long, he ends up at an old-fashioned Bell Atlantic phone booth — the last one in midtown, it turns out — in order to make a ritual daily call to his favorite client, Pamela (Katie Holmes), an ingenue he has a big crush on. Shortly after he’s finished, the phone rings, and the insinuating voice at the other end engages Stu in a hostile, accusatory dialogue that culminates with a simple, taunting threat: ”If you hang up, I will kill you.”
For the remainder of ”Phone Booth” (the film is only 80 minutes long), Colin Farrell stands in that booth, sweating and yapping, hurling obscenities at the peep-show strippers who want to use the phone as he tries to outtalk his mysterious sniper-interrogator, who is fixing him at rifle point from some hidden location across the street. The cops arrive, then the media, and then Stu’s wife (the lovely Radha Mitchell). The situation sounds sinister, except that those sex-club workers are like costumed extras who’ve come through a pre-Giuliani time warp, and the moment we hear the phone stalker, it’s clear that we’re not in reality at all but in Movie Land.
The invisible terrorist, who knows everything there is to know about Stu, is played with a honey-dipped voice of deep, unctuous theatricality by Kiefer Sutherland (off camera), who sounds as if he’s doing a cross between HAL in 2001 and the omnipotent creep in ”Scream.” He forces Stu to make confessional calls to his wife and starlet client, owning up to his adulterous fantasies. But even as Sutherland speaks his words with oily gamesmanship and then laughs, laughs, LAUGHS!, we never get the feeling that the caller is much more than a device. In effect, he’s the deranged Voice of God, a petty hero’s petty conscience paying a ”Twilight Zone” visit.
The release of ”Phone Booth” was delayed due to the Washington, D.C., sniper case, and since the picture was shot well before Colin Farrell was a star, it will probably prove to be one of the rare instances when a movie gains in commercial value by sitting on the shelf. Schumacher keeps his camera in a state of high agitation, bumping and swirling around the spectacle of Farrell’s motormouth frenzy. Slippery and defensive, with panicky eyes and a touch of beard accenting his chin, Farrell jabbers and implodes, his thick black hair growing meticulously disheveled. He has the intensity to play two conflicting states at once — cockiness and anxiety — and the flow of the movie is in watching the former give way to the latter. It’s a rather predictable arc. Stu, to be sure, receives his comeuppance, but for all the coiled skill of Farrell’s performance, the character remains a frantic, one-note hustler who gets no more interesting to watch as he unravels. ”Phone Booth” fancies itself a kind of ”Dog Day Afternoon” in miniature, but the difference between this movie and the films of the ’70s Manhattan inferno it’s so desperate to emulate is that no one back then labored under the delusion that an audience would gaze with shock and awe upon the hollow sins of a publicist.