Like Cuba Gooding, Jr., Kim Bassinger is proof that Oscar glory can fade very quickly.There’s supposed to be a curse on Oscar-winning thespians that causes their careers to tailspin shortly after they pick up their statuettes. While Sir Ben Kingsley still does great work two decades after walking off with the one he earned for starring in Gandhi, Cuba Gooding, Jr. is proof that Oscar glory can fade quickly if you waste your time and the audience’s in films like Boat Trip.
Kim Bassinger may be following in Gooding’s footsteps with Cellular. Despite the little gold man she won for L.A. Confidential, her shrill, one-note performance nearly sinks the film. To be fair, the material doesn’t do her any favors. She plays Jessica Martin, a biology teacher who manages to afford slinky, stylish dresses on an educator’s salary.
After walking her son to the bus, a gang of thugs led by a surly crew-cut sporting fellow named Ethan (an appropriately intimidating Jason Statham) kidnap her and drag her to a cobwebbed attic.
Ethan may have shattered the phone with a sledgehammer, but Jessica, ever the resourceful science teacher, manages to hot wire it and call a random phone number for help.
The recipient is a young beach bum named Ryan (Chris Evans), who has to rely on courage and ingenuity he’s never demonstrated before. Ryan has to dodge LA traffic and other obstacles of varying believability to rescue Jessica or prevent the rest of her family from harm.
Screenwriter Chris Morgan might have done well to spend more time fleshing out her character instead of thinking how to fit in some extra car chases. The storyline was written by Larry Cohen, who’s responsible for the similarly themed Phone Booth. That movie benefited from having a claustrophobic setting and a creepy voice-only performance by Kiefer Sutherland. The great outdoors doesn’t do that much for the new film.
Ryan’s wanderings begin to get a little tiresome after a while, and Bassinger gets to spend an inordinate amount of time shrieking and gasping. When Cellular aims to be a thriller, it’s hard to get invested when the leading lady is marginally convincing at best. There are some decent supporting turns by Noah Emmerich and William H. Macy as a couple of cops who take an interest in Ryan’s situation, but they and Evans often serve only to remind how miscast Bassinger is.
As a comedy, Cellular is on firmer ground. When director David R. Ellis embraces the silliness of the material instead of trying to play it straight, the laughs come rather easily. There’s a sequence in a cel phone shop that’s probably a fantasy for anyone who’s had to get equipment in a hurry, and keep an eye out for the world's least sympathetic attorney.
It’s hard to tell if Bassinger is the victim of a ill-meaning agent (what else could explain I Dreamed of Africa?) or if Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile) is the only director who can elicit first-rate performances from her. Either way, the evidence of the Oscar curse is hard to dismiss.Cellular does better when it phones in for laughs instead of thrills.