South by Southwest 2003: A Field Journal: Day Five / Film: Disconnect

Southwest 2003

Day Five / Film: Disconnect by Tobias Peterson and Terry Sawyer -- Day Two of our daily coverage of SXSW 2003 looks at the buzz-worthy film highlights, the Robert Duvall vehicle Assassination Tango and an Australian caper film entitled The Hard Word.

Day Five / Film: Disconnect

"A dirty old man student film." Though director Joel Schumacher's introductory summary of his latest film, Phone Booth was less than auspicious, you wouldn't know it by the packed house in attendance, buzzing with anticipation. With films like St. Elmo's Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down, 8 MM, Flawless, etc., etc., etc., Schumacher's name is a big one in Hollywood, and his latest film was a big pull, if a strange fit, for SXSW.

With its US release pushed back to give moviegoers time to recover from (if not forget) the sniper attacks in Washington D.C., Phone Booth has ironically benefited from the delay. As Schumacher pointed out, the news coverage of the movie's setbacks and its eerily topical subject matter did more for the film than any conventional marketing campaign could have done. By now, those who may not otherwise have seen the film will buy a ticket, just to see what all the fuss is about.

Unfortunately, there's precious little about the film that's worth this fuss. Phone Booth tells the story of Stu Shepard (played by rising star and gossip mag favorite Collin Farrell), a shallow, self-centered publicist who spends the first few minutes of the film wheeling and dealing with clients as he strolls through midtown Manhattan. Eventually, Stu enters a phone booth to make an untraceable call to Pamela (Katie Holmes), a client who he's trying (unsuccessfully) to bed even though he's married to Kelly (Radha Mitchell).

After he's rebuffed, the phone immediately begins to ring and Stu (despite the audience's best advice: "Don't do it!") picks it up. On the other line is the voice of Keifer Sutherland, whose character begins to rattle off personal information about Stu, his wife, and his crush (Pam). Stu really begins to sweat when the caller describes the suit he's wearing and tells Stu that he's looking at him through the scope of a rifle.

If that isn't enough to rattle him, the caller then shoots someone trying to barge into the phone booth Stu's occupying. The police arrive on the scene, convinced that Stu is the murderer, and, led by Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker), they try to negotiate his surrender. All the while, Stu must stay on the phone with the unseen caller and follow his instructions or risk being shot himself.

What follows is an entirely predictable story line that tries, unsuccessfully, to marry tension and comedy. Staring at Stu through the barrel of a rifle scope, the caller alternates between hostile commands and acerbic wisecracks. When Captain Ramey tries to establish a rapport with the trapped Stu by divulging his own personal problems, the caller, overhearing this on the other end of the phone, jeers, "Get this man a seat on Oprah!" Lines like these don't make Stu's stalker seem ruthlessly witty or cold-blooded. Nor do they make him funny. Instead he, and the film, come off as goofy and mismatched.

Equally awkward is the stalker's motivation. As he talks to Stu, he reveals his involvement in the sniper killing of a "German porn king" and a crooked CEO, who he targeted for their moral shortcomings. Stu has made his hit list as a result of his adulterous leanings toward Pam. Even though he's not been able to follow through with his intentions, Stu's cheatin' heart is enough to drive the caller into a homicidal rage.

Like Seven, in which the serial killer acts on a narrow and fanatical morality, Phone Booth's villain enforces his own ethical code behind the barrel of a gun. Unlike Seven, however, Phone Booth's victims are contrived (who doesn't hate CEOs?) or nonsensical (a German porn king?). That Stu is targeted for just thinking about cheating doesn't speak to the fanaticism of the killer, but rather the film's transparent attempt to make him uncomplicated and likeable for the audience.

And Phone Booth is nothing if not transparent. While SXSW gives space to experimental and risky films that challenge an audience, Phone Booth, ultimately, just really wants to be liked. After the film, Schumacher spoke of the importance of focus groups in putting the film together, a luxury that few other films screening at the festival can afford. Perhaps they could if they used their work as a platform on which to rent corporate ad space. A huge NetZero banner is draped on the building behind Stu's booth, conveniently sharing the protagonist's screen time in a less than subtle product placement. Focus groups, corporate deals, distribution: all of these facets to the film made its presence at the independently minded SXSW (in theory, at least) an anachronism.

And yet, for all its industry trappings, the film seemed to genuinely entertain those in attendance. While some festival filmmakers may lack experience (or desire) in catering to an audience, Schumacher is clearly good at what he does. And what he does is craft the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy. The placement of his latest multimillion-dollar blockbuster, however, amongst a cadre of struggling artists left a bad taste in the mouths of those interested in more innovative approaches rather than stylish rehashes.

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