“Mojave Phone Booth” is the first fruit of a project by director/producer/co-scenarist John Putch that combines Dogma-like “no frills” principles with profit-sharing among cast and crew. Experiment in mixing collectivist production ideals and experienced Hollywood talent is a noble one, though in this case, it’s wrought just a moderately interesting omnibus of linked stories about Las Vegas residents at life’s crossroads. Polished low-budgeter’s episodic nature and cast of familiar faces make it ready-made for cable pickup.
Gimmick is that a battered but still functional phone booth at the side of a highway in the Mojave Desert attracts visits from various characters. They share their troubles with Greta (voice of Shani Wallis), a mysterious, maternal older woman with an English accent. Much like a therapist, she has “regulars” who make the drive to bare their souls.
One such client is Beth (Annabeth Gish), a tough thirtysomething who’s seeing both Tim (Kevin Rahm) and Darrell (Larry Poindexter). Meanwhile, her car keeps getting broken into, and when she decides to catch the thief in action, she gets a big surprise.
Second protagonist (sections are titled onscreen by each main character’s name) is Mary (Tinarie Van Wyk Loots), a rudderless young woman who gets fired from an office job she hated. Running out of options, she begs friend Rachel (Jacleen Haber) for a loan so she, too, can become a realtor — only to discover that’s just a front for Rachel’s true profession.
Funniest, most surprising segment has casino employee Alex (Christine Elise McCarthy) not at all happy with her home life. Lover Glory (Joy Gohring) has gone off the deep end, insisting invisible space aliens have invaded her body. Rather than consulting a shrink, Glory finds online quack Michael (David DeLuise), who claims he’s suffered the same malady and can cure her — if she’s willing to fork over some cash, and maybe get naked.
Final tale, the sole one with a male protag, finds middle-aged Richard (Robert Romanus) in despair because his wife of six years Sarah (Missi Pyle) has walked out. He relates to Greta his rather pathetic attempts to win her back while bleeding in the isolated phone booth from a suicide attempt that — like his life — didn’t work out as planned.
Most of these tales are just too sketchy to compel more than mild interest; characters defined by their current problems lack greater depth. Compared with more boldly conceived omnibus features like “Personal Velocity,” or a multistrand drama a la “Little Children,” writing and direction here lack urgency and distinctive flavor. The phantom phone-booth voice, plus use of metaphor for characters’ loneliness and blocked communication, never transcend the schematic.
Nonetheless, pic holds attention even if it doesn’t add up to anything memorable. Production values are solid (especially given the pic’s microbudget cost); ditto the performances. Steve Guttenberg (who gets a chance to show he’s in spectacular shape at age 50) steals scenes as the happiest character here, a wealthy swinger who proudly avoids emotional attachments.
There was, by the way, an actual Mojave phone booth that acquired an internet-fueled cult of international callers and pilgrimage-making listeners before it was removed not long ago.