There was no reason to expect that Cellular could work. Directed by David R. Ellis (who last directed Final Destination 2) from a story by schlockmeister Larry Cohen (who came up with the idea by inverting his premise for Phone Booth), and a screenplay by first-timer Chris Morgan (with uncredited rewrites by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, the team behind The Butterfly Effect), it didn’t sound promising. Add Kim Basinger in the sort of weepy victim role she can’t play convincingly and would-be teen idol Chris Evans as the action hero, and the whole enterprise sounded like a recipe for disaster. Yet some strange alchemy has produced one of the most entertaining thrillers of the year.
I didn’t go in expecting to enjoy it, nor was I initially impressed. The early scenes have such dissimilar tones that it feels like you’re switching channels between two completely different movies — the Basinger scenes are all dramatic light and shadow and broody music while Evans’s early scenes are all sun, fun, and hip-hop. There’s one big, effective shock at the opening, but it comes so early that I despaired of what it might mean — would we be expected to sweat over a character who hadn’t been established beyond her profession and type of home? The horny adolescent beach scene that came next did little to reassure me. But slowly, by the gradual accumulation of genuinely funny jokes and thrilling set pieces, it won me over. By the halfway point I gave up on taking notes and just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Enjoyment, though, does require the viewer to ignore a score of completely implausible plot points, among them the film’s central conceit — that Basinger is kidnapped and locked up (but not bound or gagged) in an attic that handily has a phone she can tinker into limited service after it’s been busted with a sledgehammer (rather than being removed). You don’t ever really believe it, but after a while the film has created enough suspense and earned enough genuine affection for its characters that you stop caring.
While the filmmakers didn’t put much thought into making the plot believable, they were creative in constructing twists that are unexpected while mostly still feeling organic to the story. They don’t all work, but the action hums along at such a pace that the ones that fail are soon forgotten. It’s impossible to guess from the beginning just who the bad guys are or which side certain characters are on, but when you find out, it does make sense. The plot is also satisfyingly symmetrical — no character or detail is introduced that won’t be used later; no threads are left dangling.
Basinger’s early scenes are clearly meant to evoke Hitchcock, using Herrmannesque music and some of the master’s signature camera moves, but for the first half of the movie she’s more the MacGuffin than the icy blonde, locked away and helplessly waiting for rescue. It’s a shame, because the damsel in distress is just not in her range — when Evans says, “Nice with the fake tears, lady,” we’re meant to be shocked by his cavalier attitude, but it comes across as an honest critique of Basinger’s performance. Eventually, though, she’s given something to do, and she rises to the occasion. Her knowledge as a high school science teacher comes into play, naturally, when a bit of basic biology allows her to defeat a much stronger attacker (if she’d been an English teacher she would have brained him with a copy of The Grapes of Wrath). It’s a bit pat, but her ambivalence and regret feel real and earned, and her performance is on steadier ground for the rest of the movie.
When we first see Evans he’s strolling down Santa Monica Pier stripped to the waist. His physique is already superhuman, but initially he comes off as a loser, hung up on Chloe (Jessica Biel) a girl who dumped him because he was “irresponsible, self centered, completely childish. …” He’s a potential hero waiting for a situation that will prod him into action. His character arc recalls the plot of Speed, with the twist that he starts off as the Sandra Bullock civilian and winds up as Keanu Reeves, though with a wider expressive range. When he’s brought into the crisis, it takes just enough time and turns of the plot before he takes action that we believe it when he does. The rest of the film is largely the story of him finding untapped resources of courage and ingenuity, connecting with his inner James Bond. It’s cheesy, but Evans, surprisingly, is adept at pulling it off, with just enough thespian beneath the beach hunk to make the character consistently believable.
The film wisely uses our pre-existing affection for William H. Macy and plays against our expectation that he’ll either be a coward or, if heroic, only in a strictly cerebral way. Many of the best scenes are his, as he glories in his moment as an unlikely action hero and the audience cheers him on. Even a pacifist can’t help getting a kick out of seeing Macy pistol-whip a bad guy twice his size.
Cellular has some distractingly venal moments, such as the prominent product placement for Office Depot, Coca-Cola, Red Bull, and Nokia, but it also has moments of exhilarating inspiration, such the chase scene scored with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” (“Oh Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?”). It’s a perfect fit both in tempo and theme, but it took some guts to have included it — a song as rich as this could have made the scene seem terribly thin, but it works (so well, in fact, that it’s used again over the credits).
We’re at an interesting crossroads in the history of the action film, when Cellular and Paparazzi are released a week apart. Each makes liberal use of all the conventions of the genre, but the handling couldn’t be more different. Paparazzi is whorishly cynical, but its creators use the conventions with a stone-faced seriousness, as if that had ever been their intent. The saving grace of Cellular is that while trotting out those conventions — it’s essentially an extended car chase — it does so with a lightness bordering on satire, giving life to a fun and funny sunlit L.A., where even imminent death can wait for a quick laugh.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Cellular / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()