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Festival Diary, by Johanna Schneller
Taking aim at the villain du jour: the publicist

By JOHANNA SCHNELLER, The Globe and Mail
September 7, 2002

I laughed out loud in the middle of Phone Booth, the tense new film directed by Joel Schumacher, which premieres at a Toronto International Film Festival gala on Tuesday. I don't think I was supposed to, but laugh I did.

Here's the premise: A hotshot named Stu (Colin Farrell) answers a ringing pay phone in one of New York's last remaining booths, at semi-seedy 53rd Street and 8th Avenue, only to discover that a madman with a high-powered automatic rifle has Stu in his sights and promises to kill him if he hangs up. It's like Speed, standing still.

Gradually, the madman reveals that his phoning Stu was no accident; he has a bone to pick. (Warning: I don't think reading this will ruin the film for you, but that's your decision.) Now, here's the funny part. It turns out Stu is his third such victim. Victim No. 1 was a child pornographer. Victim No. 2 was a corporate CEO who defrauded thousands of stockholders. Victim No. 3 - Stu - is . . . a publicist.

Cue my crazed guffaws. Never mind that Stu is the kind of low-level, heavy-handed cellphoney whom clients ditch as soon as they have the tiniest success, and from whom no one would expect anything but lies. With a straight face, Phone Booth puts his evils on par with child pornography and criminal fraud.

I chortled again later, when the madman orders Stu to make a public confession. By this point, a large crowd of police, opinionated bystanders and slavering media types has gathered on Stu's corner; the cops think Stu shot someone and want him out of the booth, but he can't leave and he can't tell them why. "Stu, you are guilty of inhumanity to your fellow man," the madman intones. "Take responsibility. Be a man."

Choking back sobs, Stu admits, "I lie to the media, who sell my lies to more and more people." Then he calls out to his assistant, whom he spies in the crowd, "Don't be a publicist, you're too good for it!" Then I went, "Ha ha ho hee hee hee ha."

This entire movie can be read as Schumacher's revenge on flacks. ("I sort of feel like I should turn my face away," Phone Booth's own PR person joked to me after the screening.) "Don't be publicists, any of you!" the director seems to be crying. "You're all too good for it!"

His is hardly the only flack-attack at the festival. In Bowling for Columbine, which premieres tonight, director Michael Moore takes his usual swipes at corporate PR automatons. In Roger Dodger, which premieres tomorrow, Campbell Scott plays a cynical advertising copywriter who explains his work thusly: "I sit here and think of ways to make people feel bad. I remind them something's missing from their lives. Then, when they're feeling sufficiently incomplete, I convince them my product is the only thing that can fill the void." That's one of his nicer speeches.

As well, in Robert De Niro's new cop drama, City by the Sea, which opened in theatres yesterday, the police department's PR people are depicted as shallow buffoons.

Is this an anti-PR revolution? Now that Communists are passť and terrorists too real, are publicists the movie villains du jour? (Nazis, it should be noted, are alive and kicking: There are at least three Hitler-related films at TIFF this year.)

I find this backlash against PR amusing, considering we live in the postpublicity era. No one really falls for spin any more. The most regular Joe can smell it coming a mile away - Joe just doesn't care. "We don't mind being lied to, as long as we know it's a lie," says a character in Simone, a current movie about a digitally created actress. (The speaker is a teenage girl. Even kids can't be fooled.)

Ironically, one of the true heroes of Moore's Columbine film turns out to be a PR flack for K-Mart. The ad man in Roger Dodger becomes a pussycat in the end. (Sure, he's looking for a new job - a new job in advertising.)

Schumacher, who is a lovely man, seems to have had pretty good luck with publicists himself. (I'm hoping to ask him when he rolls into Toronto later this week.) His star Farrell, a relative newcomer - he made his debut in Schumacher's film Tigerland, about a Vietnam training camp, and had a small role as Tom Cruise's rival in Minority Report - was on the cover of Vanity Fair last month. When Schumacher made A Time To Kill, its star, then-newcomer Matthew McConaughey, also made VF's cover.

Come to think of it, maybe the real enemy is the cover of Vanity Fair. McConaughey's track record since hasn't been so hot. Neither has Gretchen Mol's: Immediately after appearing on VF's cover kneeling on a beach in a semi-transparent white silk gown, she dropped out of sight for years. (She's now on a TV show about female lawyers.) Ditto for Charlize Theron, who's been The Dangerously Good-Looking Girl in some 600 films, none of which was any good.

False publicity - a too-steep rise, or a promise of talent that's never delivered - doesn't need enemies. It defeats itself. Calling a TV-stunt singer an Idol doesn't make her one. The speed at which a no-talent becomes a household name is usually surpassed only by the speed with which the audience gets bored. True successes have long shelf lives, complete with rises and falls. Audiences like what they like. Some of my best friends are publicists, and they're not scary at all.


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