-By Rex Roberts

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Alternately hip and traditional, cynical and mawkish, Phone Booth seems unsure whether to push the envelope or seal it with a kiss. But this new thriller from Joel Schumacher moves so fast, and runs so short, audiences won't have time to worry about its pendulous swings in style and sympathies. As Walt Whitman famously said, 'Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.'

The film begins with what could be a promo for AT&T, the camera soaring heavenward through blue skies into orbit, where it dances with a communications satellite before plummeting back to Earth and burrowing into the fiber-optic bowels of Manhattan…all to the beat of the gospel tune 'Operator.' Meanwhile, a narrator relates statistics about the alarming number of people in the city who now use cell phones (three million out of eight million) and the concomitant demise of the phone booth. In fact, our narrator notes, one of the last phone booths in the city resides on 53rd and Broadway, and its days are numbered. But not before its bell tolls one more time.

That bell tolls for Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a two-fisted publicist (phone in each hand) working the Great White Way. It doesn't take long to figure out Stu's place in the pecking order. His clients are milquetoast rappers, celebrity-starved restaurateurs and waitresses in waiting. Besides, he dresses like he subscribes to Details. In addition to schlepping along busy streets yapping into his mouthpiece, Stu's bad habits include the daily call he makes to his girlfriend, Pamela (Katie Holmes), an aspiring actress he'd like to audition personally. Yes, Stu makes these calls from the aforementioned phone booth.

To his credit (that is, for the sake of foreshadowing), Stu takes off his wedding ring when he calls Pamela, lest he be reminded of his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), but today he won't get the chance to slip it back on. Today Stu will get a call while in the phone booth, from a stranger who, alas for our hero, turns out to be a sociopath with a grudge.

At this point, Phone Booth drops its cool front for more conventional chills, provided in large part by the eerily calm yet childishly cruel sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) who keeps Stu in his sights as he lectures him about boorish behavior. The shooter, we learn, is an angry man and jury of one who has stalked other victims, including a slimy pornographer and a greedy corporate scoundrel. Now he has devised an ingenious if perfidious scheme to expose Stu and his lies to the world.

Schumacher, whose previous work ranges from St. Elmo's Fire to Flatliners, has made four films grossing more than $100 million (The Client, A Time to Kill, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin). He makes the most of an admirably economic script by Larry Cohen (Best Seller, Guilty as Sin). Phone Booth is taut and witty, in terms of direction as well as dialogue. Schumacher's decision to use frames within the frame to show Stu's interlocutors, for example, is a stylish way to fix the film's most obvious flaw: Who wants to watch people yammering on telephones?

Yet the movie is predictable, inconsistent and really, really sappy, as Stu confesses his sins in an act of contrition and bravado. That said, Farrell delivers a frenetic, engaging performance, complemented by the always appealing Forest Whitaker as Capt. Ramey, the sagacious cop who saves Stu's life.

As with Panic Room, a similar high-concept crime drama, Phone Booth neatly wraps up its loose ends (and offers a final twist), while conveniently ignoring pesky implausibilities. The reason Stu uses the phone booth every day makes no sense, even if his motive for doing so is essential to the moral of the tale. And viewers may well wonder what they are to think about the sniper--a madman who, all said and done, forces Stu to reform his evil ways--especially in lieu of last summer's horrors around Washington, D.C.

One can't think too closely on such matters. Phone Booth should be watched in the spirit of its theme music: 'Operator, Information / Please tell me why? Oh Yeah!'

--Rex Roberts

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