A brain-dead ending ruins Phone Booth.

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April 4 2003 5:13 PM

Disconnected

Phone Booth is a clever thriller with a brain-dead ending.

[Note: In the spirit of the movie Phone Booth, which supposedly takes place in real time, I have decided to see the 11:30 a.m. show at my local (Brooklyn) cinema, dash with my laptop to a nearby Starbucks, and bang out a review in real time—that is, in 80 minutes, the length of the movie.]

The end: Phone Booth's fatal flaw
The end: Phone Booth's fatal flaw

Let's start with the lame-ass ending. No, I won't spoil it—although I should spoil it, and maybe I goddamned will spoil it. I think the studio spoiled it by not doing reshoots when those sicko snipers blew the movie off the fall schedule and the filmmakers suddenly had four extra months to shoot a whole new climax with a twist you couldn't see coming at 50,000 yards and a proper payoff that didn't make you want to pick up a rifle and …

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This is why it's better when reviews aren't written in real time.

But it is worth dwelling on the ending of Phone Booth (Fox), which turns a hammy but clever "exercise in suspense" into a frustrating exercise in coitus interruptus. Devising a great thriller means boxing your hero into a corner—jacking up the stakes, running out the clock, making the villain super-ingenious, planting scores of unpredictable obstacles like lethal jack-in-the-boxes. The more boxed-in the hero is, the more fun it is to watch him or her think of a way out—a way you should have seen but don't, because the screenwriter and director are supposed to be smarter than you are.

But the boxing-in part is a lot easier than the getting-out part. Watching Phone Booth, I was reminded of the John Huston World War II thriller Across the Pacific (1942), the ending of which hadn't been written when it came time to shoot it. Huston, who had just enlisted in the military, left his hero (Humphrey Bogart) tied up with the bad guys getting away … then donned his uniform and waved goodbye to his assistant director and crew, leaving them to figure out how to end the picture. At least the people who made that one had an excuse. Larry Cohen (screenwriter) and Joel Schumacher (director) are not, as far as I know, in Baghdad.

The premise is admittedly a killer—fun to think about, fun to see realized, not so fun to see screwed up in the last half-hour. You have a sniper terrorizing a selfish yuppie publicist, Stu (Colin Farrell, with a game but ridiculous Bronx New Yawk accent), who's stuck in a phone booth surrounded by police—and the cops don't understand that if he tells them what's going on, then a lot of other people (including Stu himself) will get blown away.

It's a premise that's almost guaranteed to make you sick with claustrophobia. Except that Schumacher—who has never made a movie that wasn't fussily overdesigned—throws in all kinds of lenses and split screens and little pictures-within-pictures and slow-motion and rotoscopic animation sequences. Phone Booth is so busy that the hero's sense of confinement never comes through. It seems to take place everywhere except in that phone booth.

In the tradition of Se7en (1995), the psycho (the voice of Kiefer Sutherland, who curls every line with a predictable sneer) fancies himself some sort of moral avenger who punishes bad people for their inhumanity to others. In the tradition of Silence of the Lambs (1991), he even performs a successful bit of psychotherapy. The sniper demands that Stu confront the reality of who he is and confess his sins to his wife (Radha Mitchell), to the actress (Katie Holmes) he has been working to seduce, and to the enormous crowd gathered around him.

That's right: For some reason the police, led by Forest Whittaker as the super-empathic negotiator, don't clear the area in front of the booth. The whole cast stands around as if watching a bad melodrama. Oh, that's right, they are watching a bad melodrama. They're standing around like the rest of us, hoping for a really smashing wind-up. But all they get is …

Oops. My 80 minutes are up.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.