If you get “The Call,” just hang up

Halle Berry in TriStar Pictures thriller THE CALL.

The Call

dir. Brad Anderson

Release Date: Mar 15, 13

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Like Abigail Breslin chained up in an underground lair, there’s a good movie hidden away in The Call, screaming to be let free. For its first hour, The Call is an economical (if casually ludicrous) thriller about a kidnapped girl and a 911 operator who takes her call for help. Like the similar Cellular, the high-concept premise works in the movie’s favor, establishing the rules and setting the scene for a white-knuckle thriller in the age of technology. Brad Anderson (Transsiberian, The Machinist) is one of the best working directors in the indie thriller genre, and he could direct this kind of thing in his sleep. He almost does.

And he would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling movie stars.

About halfway through the film, The Call completely ditches its initial premise to bring Halle Berry into the action. Until this point, Berry has been watching from the sidelines. Her character previously mishandled a 911 call, which led to the murder of the young woman on the other end of the line. Thus, this film must become her redemption story. I can picture the movie’s four screenwriters sitting around a table and chanting, “It is time. Halle Berry must rise.” What is enjoyably outrageous becomes lurid and horribly blunt, forcing Berry to chase after a serial killer with a rock. (If you think that imagery is obvious, wait until you see the movie’s attempt at Freudian psychology, when the film tries to show “what made him this way.” It’s like The Silence of the Dummies.)

You might be asking, “Wait, why would a professional 911 operator, who talks to people in peril for a living, be so stupid as to pursue a serial murderer by herself? Doesn’t she know that the very act of working alone puts her in danger? Wouldn’t she take backup with her? And isn’t she afraid of losing her job? This can’t be in the manual.” The focus-grouped script never found a pertinent question it couldn’t totally ignore, and the screenplay has holes so large you could drive a Winnebago through them. In the final half hour, when the movie becomes a rape revenge thriller in the vein of Saw, The Call basically does. Screw you, logic.

What the movie lacks in consistent tone and storytelling (half of the plot threads are discarded for no reason), it makes up for in being totally out of its mind. After winning her Oscar, Berry has made a second career out of starring in movies that take place in alternate universes, whether intended (Cloud Atlas) or accidental (Gothika). In a late-period Halle Berry movie, Berry can be locked up in the exact same mental institution that she used to run, after being framed for murder by a poltergeist who takes over her body. Her career has been possessed by a desire to wear bad wigs and continue the proud legacy of Catwoman. Occasionally these movies are entertainingly terrible, and then there’s Perfect Stranger, a film so putrid and uniquely sleazy that you want to shower afterward. The Call sadly moves from the former to the latter camp.

The real problem with The Call is that it works better as an ensemble than a star vehicle, and Anderson gets game performances out of Breslin, Roma Maffia, Michael Imperioli and Morris Chesnut, who have to fight for screen time against Berry. Besotted with a poodle weave, Halle Berry is equal parts hysterical and unwatchable, and the movie becomes tawdry and generic the more it becomes about her. By the time the movie goes so far off the track that you can’t see the track anymore, you know that there’s no saving it – or Halle Berry. It’s already done.