"The Telephone" (selected theaters) is a Whoopi Goldberg one-woman show dressed up as a movie, an approach that not only underlines the theatricality of the entire undertaking but also intensifies its suffocating effect to an intolerable degree.
Very quickly you feel trapped with Goldberg's disintegrating actress in her funky San Francisco apartment, but instead of developing empathy for Goldberg's Vashti Blue, you just want to get away from her. (We can be grateful to New World for having trimmed 15 minutes from the film.) How much better it would have been to place Goldberg on an empty stage and left the physical confines of her predicament to the imagination.
Vashti has holed herself up in her cluttered home at a time of deep personal and professional despair, having been deserted by her lover and out of work. For company she has only a goldfish and an adored owl.
But her lifeline to the world is, above all, her zebra-striped phone.
When Vashti isn't regaling her friends with her woes, she's throwing herself an imaginary party, attended by among others, a grand British Shakespearean actress. In short, writers Harry Nilsson and Terry Southern devised "The Telephone" as a format for Goldberg to strut her stuff. Goldberg goes at it with a vengeance, taking us on a roller-coaster ride of shifting moods, cracking jokes, dancing around and just plain goofing off.
Director Rip Torn means to take us from comedy to tragedy, but he is quickly derailed, for the film unwittingly places Goldberg under a microscope, revealing her strengths and weaknesses and pointing up the difficulties in making best use on the screen of so original and vivid a presence. On the plus side is her outrageous personality, her quicksilver comic intelligence and her distinctive appearance; on the minus side is her difficulty in convincing us of Vashti's vulnerability.
Too much Whoopi shows through in Vashti. You can't believe that Vashti is any less strong than Goldberg, whose own struggles have been well-documented. The result is that you lose patience with Vashti. You wait and wait for Vashti to fight back at her setbacks rather than succumb. Every time Goldberg tries to show us softness, she seems hard and phony. In film after film, Goldberg comes across as one smart, scrappy tough dame no matter what, so why not treat her impact honestly? Clearly, Goldberg needs strong roles like Celie in "The Color Purple" in which to lose herself.
When Goldberg becomes unconvincing, she becomes a show-off, and when we lose sympathy for Vashti, she and the film become insufferable. There's no help from Elliott Gould and John Heard, because in their cameos, they play types as obnoxious as Vashti. You start rooting for her next-door neighbor, who fruitlessly complains about all the noise. Sorry, but "The Telephone" (MPAA-rated R for strong language) is a wrong number.