Strangers in Paradise

From Prole Rock to President Rock

If The Man Without a Past often plays like a bottom-of-the-bill cheapster, Phone Booth actually is one. This compact 80-minute Joel Schumacher job, directed from Larry Cohen's screenplay, is deeply and wonderfully anachronistic. Low-rent and high-concept, this disreputable thriller equally suggests an EC horror comic morality tale and a coffeehouse one-act play circa 1962.

It's also bizarrely topical. Scheduled to open last fall but delayed by its distributor in the wake of the Washington sniper reign of terror, the movie posits a smart-mouthed, double-dealing, small-time New York publicist (Colin Farrell) held captive in plain sight—trapped in the Times Square phone booth he uses as an office by the unseen but telephonically present sniper watching from a nearby window. Thus the drama is played out in the crosshairs with the self-identified "media consultant" simultaneously placating his mysteriously omniscient captor and defending his scuzzy turf against an assortment of pizza deliverymen, hookers, pimps, and ultimately half the NYPD. (Forest Whitaker classes up the procedural as a neurotic cop.)

Lonely hearts with empty pockets: Outinen and Peltola in The Man Without a Past
photo: Marja-Leena Hukkanen
Lonely hearts with empty pockets: Outinen and Peltola in The Man Without a Past


The Man Without a Past
Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens April 4, at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad

Phone Booth
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Larry Cohen
20th Century Fox
Opens April 4

Head of State
Directed by Chris Rock
Written by Rock & Ali LeRoi
In release

Absurdly set in some pre-cell-phone, post-Amadou Diallo alternate universe and generously stocked with logical inconsistencies, Phone Booth is best appreciated as hilarious pulp metaphor, which, not coincidentally, happens to be one of the screenwriter's specialties. Could Camus or Sartre have imagined a scenario in which the antihero is acting—under threat of death—according to the enigmatic instructions of a voice that only he can hear even while a convenient display window filled with television sets broadcasts his plight to the world? Schumacher uses shots of communication satellites circling the globe to provide a suitably cosmic context while compounding the hysteria with his free use of split-screen and pixelated madness.

Still, it's a pity that Cohen, whose topical tabloid worldview makes him one of America's last abstract sensationalists, didn't direct his own script. The dialogue is often priceless. Charged by his invisible captor with "the sin of spin," and ordered to make a public confession, Farrell cracks the booth door and screams into the void: "I'm just part of a big cycle of lies. . . . I should be president!"

Speaking of which, Chris Rock's new comedy, Head of State, in which he plays a Washington, D.C., alderman drafted to run for the White House, is evidence of the comedian's uncanny sense of timing, but little else. This amiably lame Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rehash takes fixed elections and duplicitous pols as a given, but other than one scene where the star goes stand-up to rock the house with a bit of call-and-response populism, it's pretty much a toothless dog. That Head of State was produced, co-written, and cautiously directed by Rock himself doesn't add any psychodramatic frisson: His persona wobbles uneasily between innocent goody-goody and mildly mischievous street kid, with Bernie Mac drafted to provide some additional badassity. Head of State shows Rock suffering from premature Robin Williams syndrome. He's yet to express the full ferocity of his comic talent on the screen and he's already doing penance by going for the warm and fuzzy.

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