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Cellular

Director: David R. Ellis
Cast: Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, William H. Macy, Jason Statham, Noah Emmerich

(New Line; US theatrical: 10 Sep 2004; 2004)

Helpless

Cellular is so corny it’s even behind its own time. Witness its ostensible tension-making-and-breaking joke, when the villains seek their victim, a good kid named Ryan (Chris Evans), hiding among the crowd at the Santa Monica Pier. Anxiously straining to see their quarry, the bad guys talk to one another on walkie-talkies: “He’s the one with the cell phone,” hisses head baddie Ethan (Jason Statham). At which point the camera cuts to his cohort’s point of view, a veritable sea of boys on cell phones. Oi. What planet have these guys been on, that they wouldn’t have known this is the way the world works now?


Bereft of logic, suspense, or reason for being, Cellular is the latest based-on-a-Larry-Cohen-story movie. These range from the frankly amazing Hell Up in Harlem to the considerably less impressive Phone Booth. Incredibly, this one charts a new low. Dully directed by erstwhile movieland hairdresser David R. Ellis, it can’t seem to get out of its own way, putting young Ryan in one implausible situation after another, as if hoping you won’t notice the swift descent into nonsense.


The shenanigans begin when Ethan and his couple of ugghy thug-buddies smash through Jessica’s (Kim Basinger) glass back door. After shooting her Latina housekeeper (who gets to say all of one word before she’s dispatched), they haul Jessica back to a “hideaway” (nice joint in the LA burbs) and lock her in an attic, fee to roam and moan. The camera circles her as she checks windows and walls for a way out: nothing! And then she finds it, the item that will drive her plot, a telephone that Ethan has helpfully smashed to bits minutes before. Being a high school science teacher, Jessica has the wherewithal to piece the thing back together, tap-tapping the naked wires until she makes a connection to, you guessed it, Ryan’s cell phone.


Voice quaking, she states her case, that she’s kidnapped, has no idea where she is (though she seems never to have been blindfolded or knocked out), and worries that she’s about to be killed like “my housekeeper.” Ryan, of course, has no reason to believe this crazy lady, but as his beloved ex-girlfriend Chloe (Jessica Biel) has just accused him of being “irresponsible, self-centered, and completely childish,” he’s inclined to do the conscientious thing, and take this crazy lady seriously. This especially when Jessica leaves the phone on as Ethan re-enters the attic just long enough to threaten her with a belt and make her scream.


Following this strange bit of voyeuristic thrilling (the camera cuts to Ryan’s horrified but can’t-help-but-be-intrigued face as he overhears her cries), the kid leaps into action. That is, he takes the “10 minutes” she asks to stop by the nearest cop station and report the crime. And here he meets the third term (or fourth, if you count the cardboard villains) in this tipsy structure, desk sergeant Bob Mooney (William H. Macy). It’s his last day on the job, and his retirement solicits a few “You’re pussy-whipped” jokes among his fellows, because he’s headed home to manage a day spa, complete with avocado masks and strawberry toners, with his wife. In other words, he’s playing Robert Duvall’s part in Falling Down, an earnest, weary, 27-year veteran who needs to be reminded how to “be a man.”


Ryan, on a sort of other hand, needs to discover his courageous action hero’s heart—which he accomplishes instantly. As soon as things go wrong at the police station (the cell phone loses power when he climbs a staircase), Ryan decides that the cops can’t help him, and so he sets out to deal with Jessica’s predicament himself, swinging into a series of increasingly incoherent and unbelievable action scenes—car chases, running and leaping, even shooting. And just moments before, he was just another “irresponsible” kid on the pier, brandy new picture cell phone in hand.


Near-missing the chances to save her child (actually named Ricky Martin and played by Adam Taylor Gordon, his ostensible wear-and-tear during the day indicated by crude dark-circled-eye makeup) and her husband Craig (Richard Burgi) from Ethan and crew, Ryan steals a school security vehicle and later, a very speedy Porsche Carrera from the supposedly comic-reliefy self-absorbed lawyer (Rick Hoffman). (And speaking of utterly tired stereotypes, another accidental phone call goes to a character identified only as “Vietnamese artist” [Dat Phan], who speaks in haphazard English and postures energetically, to what end we’ll never know.)


Ryan’s own antics earn him a few minutes on the local tv news, accused of a “crime spree” when he pulls out a gun to get a cell phone charger, steals that Mooney, meanwhile, begins to rethink his close encounter with the kid, and follows up on the kidnapping charge: forced to fire his gun, Mooney pursues the case even when his captain (Noah Emmerich) suggests he back off. As the plot turns simultaneously murkier and more predictable, Jessica is increasingly ridiculous. In part this is a function of Basinger’s disappointing performance, and in part it’s a function of the lines she’s reading, from “Are you there?” to “We’ve all seen their faces, they can’t let us live” to “I feel so helpless, it’s my family!” And oh yes, she’s reading these lines over the phone, which enhances her distance and reduces her thin performance to miniscule dimensions.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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