When people refer to Hollywood as a dream factory, they typically think of the more overt flights of fancy in which movies trade, be it alien robot monsters, serendipitous love that crosses the ages, or getting revenge on a gruesome serial killer. For my money, though, one of the most important fantasies found in cinema consists of the depiction of the workplace as a gathering of brilliant, dedicated minds united by a noble purpose. Whether self-sacrificing pawns in a spy thriller or pathologically idealistic leaders in an Aaron Sorkins production, these professionals inspire each of us to approach our everyday job with devotion or, at least, find one in which we can find passion.
Take, for example, the 911 floor supervisor in The Call, Maddy, whom Roma Maffia portrays as both firm and nurturing, peering from afar every once in a while to let us know she’s on top of everything but trusts her staff implicitly. I love her calm and direct approach when Jordan (Halle Berry) accidentally gets a teenage girl killed by calling her back, thus alerting the stranger in the house. Come to think of it, our protagonist also displays a level of responsibility seldom found in film (or real life), acknowledging the gravity of her mistake without making it all about her. Again, these are professionals who care deeply about what they do and how well they do it.
We catch up with Jordan six months later as she gives new recruits a tour of the 911 call center, explaining the details of the job and the stakes involved. If you can’t tell that she’s stopped taking calls since the incident, don’t worry: one of her trainees, Josh (Ross Gallo), brings it up by asking, “What about you? Why aren’t you on the phone?” apparently unaware that a single human being cannot give lectures in a conference room and respond to emergencies in a cubicle at the same time. The line strikes me as infuriatingly stupid, shoehorned exclusively for the slow kids in the class. More on that later.
Anyway, Jordan ends up taking over for one of the less experienced operators when another teenager, Casey (Abigail Breslin), calls from her friend’s cell phone after getting thrown into the trunk of a car. Of course, her kidnapper (Michael Eklund) turns out the same madman who murdered the first girl, but the movie doesn’t focus on the convoluted symmetry of the situation so much as on the coordinated efforts by law enforcement to find the victim before it’s too late. In this respect, The Call proves a top-notch thrill ride.
It helps that Casey is fleshed out early on in a scene that feels like a genuine conversation between two strong-willed (and slightly obnoxious) adolescents. Our young heroine proves herself resistant to peer pressure in a way that would make any parent proud without falling into the unlikely role model stereotype. In short, we believe in the character and therefore care about her survival. By the same token, we know her untimely death would destroy Jordan at the other end of the line, so we find ourselves doubly invested in the stakes.
More to the point, one has to give chops to any thriller that breaks from the tired formula in which an underappreciated rebel overcomes impossible odds alone because he or she is the only person to care about human life. Originally titled “The Hive”, Brad Anderson’s film favours a less narcissistic version of heroism, emphasising the flawless coordination between the different branches of law enforcement. Consider the bit in which Jordan coaches Casey on how to bring attention to her mobile prison while other 911 operators scan for calls of suspicious highway activity. The suspense as Officer Phillips (Morris Chestnut) and LAPD helicopters try to narrow down the location of the vehicle had me on the edge of my seat.
Unfortunately, the movie loses its way in the final act as screenwriter Richard d’Ovidio bends over backward to deliver a physical confrontation between Jordan and the killer. Before long, the narrative turns into that of a conventional popcorn thriller complete with befuddling leaps in logic and callback one-liners. The climax itself is well executed, but it feels again like someone retooled an otherwise clever product to benefit the slow kids in the class. I would have rather The Call had left us with the dream of professional heroism instead of yet another sordid revenge fantasy.