Despite its schlocky, high-concept premise — 911 operator tries to save the life of the panicked teen girl on the other end of the phone — somebody clearly tried to make “The Call” into a real movie.
They hired Brad Anderson (“Session 9,” “The Machinist”) to direct and loaded the cast with sharp performers, from Halle Berry as the operator and Abigail Breslin as the girl in peril to plum supporting roles for Morris Chestnut, Roma Maffia and HBO alums Michael Imperioli and Justina Machado.
And for most of the running time, they get away with it — until the script by Richard D’Ovidio (“Exit Wounds”) puts down the phone, plunging its heroine into a standard serial-killer thriller and, as a bonus, making her act like an idiot.
When “The Call” channels Cocteau’s “The Human Voice” and focuses on Berry and her headset, the movie maintains an entertaining level of suspense; when it becomes yet another “Silence of the Lambs” rip-off, you can feel the tension seep away.
Experienced 911 staffer Jordan (Berry) stands out among the worker bees at “the hive,” the central complex for all of L.A.’s emergency services. But when she’s distracted after a romantic coffee-break visit by her cop boyfriend Paul (Chestnut), she makes a fatal error, calling back the young victim of a home invasion. The phone’s ring gives away the girl’s hiding place, and Jordan hears the killer dispatch his victim.
Fast-forward to six months later: Jordan is on anxiety meds and has given up the switchboard to become an instructor. When one of her trainees is unable to deal with a panicked call from Casey (Breslin), who has just been snatched from a local mall, Jordan must return to duty.
Anderson masterfully weaves between Jordan and Casey’s ever-more-panicked conversation and the widespread manhunt for the girl; adding to the anxiety is actor Michael Eklund, who plays the kidnapper as twitchy enough to be capable of very bad things yet smart enough to possibly get away with it. When “The Call” works, it’s a supremely effective B-thriller.
If only the film trusted its strengths. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that it wasn’t enough for Jordan to be a really great 911 operator. Apparently, she also had to be a recklessly foolhardy vigilante, pursuing her own clues and stumbling into the bad guy’s murder den unarmed and without backup.
It feels like a real betrayal to Berry, who’s actually investing some soul into this character. (No easy feat, as she’s been saddled with a wig that calls to mind both Ronald McDonald and Patti LaBelle circa 1975.) All we know about Jordan is how she does her job, but that’s all we need to know, and for this competent woman to turn into another blithering slasher heroine feels like a massive failure of nerve.
“The Call” turns out to be more interesting than what the trailers promised, yes, but by getting hung up in an unconvincing and ill-conceived third act, we’re left with a disappointing disconnect.