First Time Caller is like Phone Booth (2002) meets Phenomenon (1996), only John Travolta is in serious need of some Fiber One cereal. It may leave viewers with a terrible feeling in the pits of their stomachs or the very ends of their rectums. Is that good or bad? Depends on what tickles your funny bone. SPOILERS AHEAD….
In this dark comedy by Abe Goldfarb, Mac Rodgers, and Brian Silliman, the trio behind the Gideon Media podcast “The Earth Moves”, Carole King’s ‘70s classic “I Feel the Earth Move” is taken to profoundly absurd levels. Co-directed by Goldfarb and J.D. Brynn and written by Mac Rodgers (Quiet Part Loud podcast, The Horror at Gallery Kay), First Time Caller sees a polarizing podcaster Brent Ziff (played by Goldfarb) take a call from a longtime fan and first-time caller (get it?) whose bowels are attuned to cataclysmic shifts within the earth’s core.
One man has the platform to reach millions. Another man has a tectonic case of IBS. Together, a new, post-apocalyptic utopia may be forged in the ruin of the old world … or can this all be blamed on consuming too much taco bell!?
As a dark comedy, the premise is very funny. A blowhard, who makes waves with online listeners, meets a longtime fan, Leo Short aka Shorty (played by Silliman), who reveals the end of times because his guts – his rectum – can feel when the earth is about to shift its tectonic plates and create giant waves that will destroy cities.
The cinematography is highly stylized as is the editing. However, my issue is with the film’s action. In my opinion, First Time Caller would play better as an audio podcast like “The Earth Moves” rather than being converted into a visual story medium. The majority of the film is spent staring at Brent Ziff’s (Goldfarb’s) head and face reacting to the absurd things being explained by Silliman’s character (Leo Short) over the internet.
The reveals don’t pack the same punch or rib tickle you’d feel compared to the images conjured through the theater of the mind if you were listening to the events unfold more intimately through headphones or earbuds.
The biggest problem when you’re converting an audio story into a visual story is translating the telling into showing. I know from my own endeavors in podcasting that it can be easy to fall on the crutch of simply stating an action to plant the seed of an idea or image into the listener’s mind. Some of the best writers and performers can do this tactfully and when you’re listening to these story details in audio form it’s similar to reading a book. You’re connected to the action and emotions on a more cerebral level.
Am I saying that First Time Caller needed to make me feel like I was going to shit my pants every time Shorty felt a tsunami sized bowel movement in his colon? Not necessarily, but if there was some way to add more action to show the absurdity of the situation, then the jokes would have hit even harder as would the impact of the horror that Brent Ziff experiences.
There are earnest attempts to depict Brent experiencing the cataclysm through news updates and other callers, and, at the end, Shorty’s predictions seem to come to fruition. I just wanted to see less of Brent’s head and face.
Given the background of the creators and performers behind First Time Caller, I’d say the future is promising. They’re experienced writers, directors, and actors.
Abe Goldfarb has done previous work in horror and notable voice work in video games such as Starfield. Major nerds out there might know him as Professor Kukui in the English dub of Pokémon.
Mac Rodgers collaborated in the horror realm outside of podcasting with The Horror at Gallery Kay working with Goldfarb behind the camera and Brian Silliman as one of the leads.
Silliman has also appeared in the High Fidelity TV series, Orange Is the New Black, and Men in Black International.
Given this is co-director J.D. Brynn’s first feature since 2007, the cinematography and the editing were very clean.
With all that said, if I had to choose between re-watching the film or checking out the podcast, I’d recommend the podcast. There’s not enough of a story to carry an hour-long feature despite really cool cinematography, decent performances, and some stellar references to Kelly LeBrock and Michelle Meyrink. All in all, this first-time viewer, long-time reviewer calls for a 15 to 20-minute re-cut of First Time Caller.