Where would the film industry be without Queen Latifah? She has one of the most appealing screen personas in contemporary Hollywood, sly and sassy enough to make us envy her cool self-assurance but just down-to-earth enough to seem accessible. In a bad movie like Bringing Down the House, she brings enough energy and wit to keep us from walking out. In a decent but disappointing film like Barbershop 2, she all but steals the show. And when she’s given a role with substance, as in Living Out Loud or Set it Off, she shows that she has the ability to do more than just work on our existing affection; she displays a surprising edge and depth that hints at the actress she might be, given the roles that would allow her to develop those skills.
I hope to see that happen someday, but this isn’t the day. Taxi is less offensive and somewhat more inventive than Bringing Down the House, but like the earlier film it would fall apart without Latifah’s spark. The story puts a spin on the typical black guy/white guy buddy-cop movie by making the black guy a woman and the white guy an actor with so much less screen presence you forget he’s there. Jimmy Fallon was a likable and funny guy on “Saturday Night Live,” but like so many of the performers who’ve shined in its format, he has a ways to go before he can convince us he’s ready for prime time. In Taxi, he seems perceptive enough to realize that our interest naturally gravitates to his co-star, but he doesn’t have a strategy to counter it. His performance is thin and wheedling, like a needy schoolboy clamoring for the attention given to a cooler contemporary. His attempts at working up comic energy mostly fall flat, coming off like a bad impression of the manic riffs of Art Carney’s Ed Norton (he’s at his best before his character meets Latifah’s, when, as an undercover cop making a deal with Cuban crooks, he does a hilarious Tony Montana-esque routine in an attempt to win their trust). He works against himself by overdoing everything, while Latifah projects her effortless cool, serene in the knowledge that she doesn’t have to work for our attention.
Perhaps in an effort to attract the element of the movie-going public that isn’t physically attracted to full-figured black women, the filmmakers have filled almost every other role with skinny, white, Victoria’s Secret-types, led by übermodel Gisele Bündchen as the head of an all-girl team of bank robbers. Bündchen and the rest of her crew aren’t called upon to do much of what one might call “acting,” so there’s little opportunity to embarrass themselves. Mostly, they just take off disguises to reveal the skimpy fabric swatches they’re wearing beneath them. Faring less well is Jennifer Esposito, who is violently miscast as Fallon’s boss and former love interest. With her adorable miniskirts and her streaked locks artfully cascading out of a ponytail to frame her jawline, Esposito is about as believable as a lieutenant in the NYPD as Dennis Franz would be as a beauty queen. To make matters worse, she delivers her lines with wan disinterest, sounding as though she’s trying to hide a foreign accent, though she was born in New York City. The one pleasant surprise in the supporting cast is a former sexpot, Ann-Margret, playing Fallon’s boozy mother. It’s a tiny, one-note role, a type rather than a character, but she plays it like the old pro she is, giving the film a much-needed infusion of winking naughtiness.
The shame here is that Taxi could have been so much better. The script is co-written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, two of the gifted comic minds behind “The State” and “Reno 911,” and the direction is by Tim Story, who created an elegant balance of humor and insight in the first Barbershop. Garant and Lennon have included some good gags, but the film lacks the anarchic inventiveness they’ve shown elsewhere, while Story’s direction is inexplicably scattershot. The film’s rhythms feel off; some dialogue scenes are edited with no apparent rhyme or reason, the camera aimed anywhere but where it logically should be and the cuts placed randomly. And rather than tempering humorous scenes with thoughtful moments, as he did in Barbershop, Story muddles the film’s tone by sprinkling funny scenes with momentary hints of pathos and then returning to the funny, or even playing both simultaneously. It’s possible to make an audience laugh at the drunken mother’s stumbling while creating sympathy for her concerned, embarrassed son, but Story hasn’t constructed the scenes with that sort of dark humor, so the audience is all at sea, feeling guilty for laughing and annoyed at being made briefly to care and then to have that emotion tossed aside.
The action sequences work better; the film is full of chase scenes involving both cars and bicycles, but they don’t get repetitive, nor does the energy flag. It’s the last thing I would have expected after Barbershop, which had no real action scenes but was full of well-paced, naturalistic conversation between its characters. It was the film’s great strength, and one that I missed in the sequel, whose director, Kevin Rodney Sullivan, brought in some clever, arty touches but lacked Story’s feel for dialogue. Story seems to be trying to prove himself as an action director in advance of his next project, The Fantastic Four, and he’s successful by that measure, but his former strengths seem somehow lost in the attempt.
Taxi has its share of fun, jazzy moments, and it’s buoyed by the use of well-chosen soul and R & B tunes, but too often the comedy is dragged down by running gags that start off unfunny and end up being just embarrassing. Queen Latifah’s performance is winning and smart enough to save it from total disaster, but I have to wonder when she’ll have a vehicle that matches up to her gifts.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Taxi / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()