Seems like every other day, one of the aggregate sites is posting another think piece about the dire state of the American movie. As stories grow more formulaic, the profits grow larger, and thus there will be no impetus to change until the whole damn thing falls apart. One of these pieces, culled from a screenwriter’s comment on yet a different piece (io9 is basically the Inception of websites), outlined a series of notes that every single executive gives. See, executives aren’t precisely sentient as we understand the term. Their existences are motivated by base fear and ravenous greed, which if you know your biology, is exactly what motivates your standard flatworm. They don’t understand why something is a hit, but they can pinpoint qualities that most hits seem to have, and often seem to zero in on the most head-scratching of reasons to apply to subsequent projects (i.e. Kristen Steward was in Twilight, Twilight was a huge hit, therefore Kristen Stewart is the reason why). One of these notes that this screenwriter hit on was that every film has to have not just high stakes, but the highest. It’s not enough for one guy’s family to be in danger; the fate of the entire universe must hang in the balance for any audience to care. This conveniently edits out relatively successful movies with lesser stakes, like the aforementioned Inception, or that little boat movie Titanic, or Halloween, a film about the worst night of babysitting ever. Or Show-favorite Die Hard, which has morphed into everyone’s favorite Christmas movie. The terrorists in Die Hard were after money (spoiler!), not at the forefront of an alien invasion. “Come on, no one will care that some cop makes up with his wife,” the standard executive would no doubt sneer.
A thriller without world-shattering stakes just will not get greenlit in the current studio system that banks on a few runaway hits to finance the entire slate. And yes, this is much like anchoring one’s entire offense on Hail Mary plays, and the reason a couple guys who understand the business are predicting an implosion. It’s a shame, because the very best of the genre usually came down to one person’s life or death. There’s a very simple truism: all stakes are high if they’re happening to you, and one of the great tricks of writing is making the person reading/listening/watching react to the protagonist as him- or herself. When we watch Halloween, we identify with Laurie. When we watch Rear Window, we are Jeff. We’re Nick, Sam, and the Continental Op. None of these works put anything on the line greater than a few deaths, but we care. Hell, these are some of the most famous, most profitable, and most influential pieces of art in the genre. In the ‘80s and ‘90s they spawned a number of smaller films, disposable certainly, but no less enjoyable for it. This week’s movie, the 2004 thriller Cellular, is the last of its kind: a tiny film whose only stakes are the survival of a single upper-middle class family.
That middle class family gets kidnapped by a gang of thugs, and the shockingly resourceful matriarch Jessica manages to MacGyver a phone back together after it was pulverized by a sledgehammer. Her call is random, connecting her to the titular cellphone of Ryan, irresponsible beach bum whose estranged girlfriend lays out his problem (known in screenwriting circles as his “misbehavior,” i.e. the character flaw he must overcome to triumph) in their first scene: “You’re irresponsible, self-centered, and childish.” At first Ryan believes Jessica’s call to be a prank, but he soon gets drawn into the plot as he resorts to increasingly crazy ways to rescue her family. He essentially plays a live-action game of Grand Theft Auto through Los Angeles for the most altruistic of reasons. It recalls the films of Hitchcock whose everyman protagonists were caught in situations beyond their control. (Just to be clear — I’m not putting Cellular on Hitchcock’s level. That’s bananas.) Ryan stays one step behind the creepy goons organizing the kidnapping, until the third act when he starts getting proactive. The stakes get raised when Ryan learns the real reason these people are being victimized, but the movie stays in a comfortably intimate place throughout.
The most flashy part of Cellular, at least on the face of it, is the cast. Before he was the best thing in Marvel blockbusters, Chris Evans had a career as being the best thing in low- to mid-budget movies. This is one of the first of those, and he displays flashes of why he ended up being the perfect Captain America. Kim Basinger plays Jessica Martin, and though the character could have easily degenerated into a one-note screaming damsel, she is actively engaged in her rescue throughout. William H. Macy is a cop who wants to open a day spa (you know, because LA is wacky), but ends up being drawn into Ryan’s bizarre crime spree. Jason Statham is on hand as the villain, a welcome repurposing of his tough-guy act. There are other recognizable faces sprinkled throughout (including Jessica Biel’s glorified cameo as the ex-girlfriend), and everyone does solid work.
While the film leans a little heavily on “everyone in LA is weeeeeeird” for its humor, including the aforementioned day spa, an older Beverly Hills type listening to blaring hip hop (the always welcome Lin Shaye), and a borderline-sociopathic lawyer (Rick Hoffman, playing his specialty) breathlessly describing his new Porsche to his mom, the diversions are relatively brief. Macy sells his comic scenes best, putting just the right amount of weary exasperation into his line, “it’s a day spa, you fuck.”
The film feels anachronistic in its depiction of cellphone technology, the way we giggle at the giant suitcase phone Murtaugh uses in Lethal Weapon. If I had to guess, I would say that the original script appeared in the late ‘90s, right as cellphones were growing in ubiquity, but struggled to be made until the early aughts. Still, it’s an interesting window to the time when something we consider an indispensable part of modern life was still seen as an exotic distraction. Larry Cohen’s story (and I’ve talked about the double-edged sword of that statement) takes one of the great plot difficulties of the modern writer — how to create tension when a single phone call solves everything? — and turns it into the crux of the plot. It’s a fascinating writing exercise that became an effective thriller.
Cellular is a relic of a recently bygone era of smaller films, and of a time before smartphones. No one will ever call it a great movie, but it’s a damned entertaining one and well worth the time.