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Published: Wednesday, 4/6/2011

Hold the phone -- that fake number works

BY MARK CARO
CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The politician played by Matt Damon doesn't initially remember the phone number that the dancer played by Emily Blunt gives him in The Adjustment Bureau.

That's strange, because I sure did. It's 212-664-7665.

In fact, I repeated it in my head for the rest of the movie: 212-664-7665. 212-664-7665. 212-664-7665.

Once home I called it.

No answer.

Too bad, because any movie or TV show offering a phone number without a 555 prefix is inviting you to start punching digits. Paul Thomas Anderson rewarded geeky fans of his 1999 epic drama Magnolia by including two real numbers. If you called 818-775-3993, which is dialed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's nurse character, you reached a recording of a flustered woman saying, "Please leave a message at the tone."

More entertaining was 1-877-TAMEHER, the number displayed on the infomercial from the sex evangelist played by Tom Cruise. If you called it, you would have heard the Cruise character's spiel for his Seduce and Destroy program, which promised to "help you get that naughty sauce that you want. Fast."

Those numbers, alas, don't work anymore. The first one triggers a "Your call cannot be answered at this time ..." recording, and 1-877-TAMEHER (now listed strictly by numbers) connects you to the corporate office of the Los Angeles-based health club Meridian's Bodies in Motion, which didn't return phone messages even though I refrained from using the words "naughty sauce."

But here's a number that does still work: 800-984-3672. It showed up in an episode of The Office a few years ago, and if you call it now, you get a message from an Office-related fictional company.

"Hello, you have reached WB Jones Heating and Air Conditioning," a chirpy yet low voice begins before reminding listeners to keep their thermostats at 67 degrees over the winter and 76 over the summer. "This will keep your home and yourselves comfortable, at the same time decreasing your family's carbon footprint. This makes for a happy planet, and a happy planet makes for happy people. Please wait for the next available customer service representative."

Then come about 30 seconds of canned music, "Thank you for calling" and disconnection.

Other shows, such as Scrubs and Supernatural, also have included numbers that led to customized outgoing messages, but usually fictional phone numbers aren't intended to be dialed in real life.

Most phone service providers still don't give out the title number of Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit "867-5309/Jenny" because of the subsequent outbreak of crank calls asking for "Jenny."

In the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty, God's phone number (776-2323, no area code) appears on the Carrey character's pager, so of course moviegoers called it and asked to speak to God. That's kind of funny, unless you happened to own that number in your area code.

The Associated Press reported that a Florida woman threatened to sue Universal Pictures because she was receiving 20 calls an hour on her cellphone. The phone number also connected divine-seeking callers to a church in Sanford, N.C., where the minister, who happened to be named Bruce, was not amused. The BBC reported that even a man in the Manchester, England, area was receiving up to 70 calls a day from folks seeking help and forgiveness.

At the time, Universal explained that the number it chose was not in use in the Buffalo area, where the movie was set. The studio subsequently replaced it in TV and home video versions with, yes, a 555 number.

At least all this happened before Twitter and other social media networks accelerated the spread of such mischief. Last year Justin Bieber tweeted an annoying teen fan's phone number, and the poor kid's cellphone reportedly received more than 26,000 text messages before he could shut down his account.

The 555 phenomenon dates to at least the early 1960s, when TV and movie producers were encouraged to use these numbers because they weren't being distributed to customers. The convention has become so well known that it all but screams to viewers: "Fake phone number!"

That's why Adjustment Bureau director George Nolfi asked his producers to find him an alternative for his sci-fi romance about a couple (Damon and Blunt) that tries to conquer predestination.

"I hate 555 numbers in a movie," Nolfi said. "We do so much work to try to help the audience suspend disbelief, particularly in a movie like The Adjustment Bureau with a crazy premise. The idea of seeing a 555 number would really throw me out of a movie like that, so I asked for a real number, and they sent me to Universal's clearance department, and they said they own a real number."

It turns out Universal, perhaps having learned from the Bruce Almighty fiasco, bought its very own number with a New York area code. It appeared in the studio's 2008 movie Definitely, Maybe. It appeared in the studio's 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. And now it's in The Adjustment Bureau.

Universal made no one available to speak on this apparently quite delicate topic.

I asked Nolfi why calls to the movie's phone number don't lead to an outgoing message.

"This was a very, very difficult movie logistically, and my first movie [directing] too, so I didn't follow up on that," Nolfi said. "It's more of a marketing thing."

Of course, he can't win, because even when a filmmaker goes to the trouble of including a real phone number, a knucklehead like me makes a point of memorizing it instead of just going with the narrative flow (though I still enjoyed the movie). A cheeky outgoing message from, say, Emily Blunt would just encourage such behavior.

And then I'd have to tweet it.



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