Taxi (2004)

2004-10-06 (Limited release)

Luc Besson produced this remake of his own 1998 wacky comedy: why, we’ll never know. Starring Queen Latifah as newly licensed New York cabbie Belle, Taxi appears to lean heavily on her legendary charisma. At the same time, the movie hedges that bet by pairing her with Jimmy Fallow, who is apparently instructed to play her absolute opposite: the least appealing, most annoying white boy on the planet.

In theory, this basic “buddies” plot replicates that of Besson’s film, directed by Gérard Pirès and starred Samy Naceri and Frédéric Diefenthal as opposites who come to accept one another’s foibles as they must work together to solve a problem. But in practice, the U.S. version, directed by game Tim Story (Barbershop), is less about coming to terms or acceptance, and more about straight-up exploitation. True to recent U.S. comedic patterns, this Taxi is hyperactive but basically lazy, relying on formulas and stereotypes to solicit laughs.

And so: Belle first appears in a sort of disguise, a little jokey business to get you thinking about how to laugh at expectations and in expected places. A bicycle courier speeds down NY streets, leaping over stairwells, hitching rides with trucks, barely evading certain disaster with each extreme sportsy move, arriving back at the courier service in order to whip off her helmet to reveal that — whoa! — it’s Belle, all smiles and seductive ego, the fastest, bestest stunt rider of the crew, basking in their adoration. It’s her last day at work, for she is at long last getting her cab driver’s license, and be able to start a new, more lucrative life. As Belle sees it, she’s got only a few short steps to make in order to reach her end-dream, NASCAR stardom.

Okay, you get this. Belle is set up to work against stereotypes: athletic, aggressive, mechanically inclined, she’s a black woman NASCAR fan. At the same time, though, before you get worried, she’s properly sexualized, paired with stalwart construction worker boyfriend Jesse (Henry Simmons), that is, neither too butch nor available for the little white guy with whom she’ll spend the bulk of the movie.

This would be NYC detective Andy Washburn (Jimmy Fallon, less charismatic than his costar), whose first scene’s mustachioed “Cuban” undercover shenanigans are ripped off from any number of sources, including the Wayans brothers (who actually do it better). Things go wrong: when terminally bad driver Andy backs his vehicle into a bodega, he kills a fellow cop’s undercover parrot. And so, his lieutenant and ex-girlfriend (during their term at academy), Marta (Jennifer Esposito, who simply needs a real role, as she quite outshines most everyone here, save for Latifah). Though she’s rarely out of her office, typically on the phone or about to be called into someone else’s office — that is, very busy and efficient-seeming — Marta takes a few moments to feel sorry for Andy when she takes away his license and demotes him to uniform duty. The other cops feel no such sympathy: for them, Andy’s the goat.

Feeling sorry for himself, Andy hears on his radio that a bank robbery is occurring two blocks away. Unable to imagine running that far, he gets in Belle’s cab, and a buddy relationship is hatched. She thinks he’s stupid, he thinks she’s mean, but she does rather get off on zooming around corners in her tricked out Crown Victoria, as fancy a city car as you’re likely to see, zapped into action by a few flicked switches, while Andy whines and worries at her dazzling speed and skill, high-voiced and girly, to set off her poise and intelligence.

It turns out that the culprits are a gaggle of Brazilian supermodels, led by Vanessa (Gisele Bündchen), serially robbing banks in broad daylight, because they’re just so clever. Apparently the fact that they wear suits, ties, and fake mustaches makes the NYPD and the FBI believe they’re men. Belle catches a glimpse of the robbers and so knows they’re girls (and that they’re speaking Portuguese), and so her input becomes crucial for Andy to solve the case and get his good name back. Their friendship takes the all too typical turns: Jesse gets jealous; Andy and Belle stop off to visit Andy’s “quirkily” and pathetically alcoholic mom (Ann-Margret spinning her semi-tragic role in Any Given Sunday into even sadder comedy); one ostensible sight gag has her trundling off to bed, cradling her margarita-blender to bed.

You might imagine the thinking here: because Latifah is amazing and well-loved and a recent Oscar nominee, she can survive and maybe even uplift whatever formulaic debris might be sent her way, even some drivel starring a Saturday Night Live alumnus. But it’s precisely because she can bend whatever race and gender rules she wants (and her new cd, The Dana Owens Album, demonstrates she’s got some musical stretch as well) that Latifah should be making smart, estimable movies. She wants to bring joy to “the people,” but more of them want to see her push at the boundaries of her considerable talent instead of recycle what’s been done before. They don’t want her to spend her precious time on The Cookout or Bringing Down the House. Almost 20 years after Jumpin’ Jack Flash — to pick one example of a genre film running similar race and gender inversions, courtesy of a talented, charismatic star trying to bust down the industry’s racist or other barriers — these unfunny cliché-fests can only look like steps backwards.