- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Quick, name a breakout character Jimmy Fallon played during his six-year run on “Saturday Night Live.”

OK, he manned the news desk with Tina Fey and scored as that obnoxious Red Sox fan, but otherwise, the comic’s credentials boil down to a gift for impersonations and that adorably tousled mop of hair.

Rules are rules, however, and all “SNL” graduates — even Joe Piscopo — must attempt a film career.

Which brings us to “Taxi,” a loose remake of a 1998 French smash, which exposes Mr. Fallon as a not-ready-for-prime-time movie star.

It doesn’t help that he’s paired with Queen Latifah, who even on an off day — as she suffers here — knows the big screen is where she belongs.

Not so Mr. Fallon, or at least not yet. He seems to grow smaller in every scene, making the unlikeliest film cop in … well, maybe since those Keystone fellas hung up their hats.

Mr. Fallon plays Washburn (because movie cops go simply by their last names), a member of New York’s finest who drives even worse than he busts crimes.

A suspended Washburn hails a cab driven by Belle (Queen Latifah) to pursue a fleeing band of bank robbers. He quickly discovers Belle’s wheels aren’t your typical yellow cab. We’re talking a souped-up marvel that can outrun the fastest production cars on the street.

They’ll need all that horsepower because the criminals in question drive an even meaner machine and don’t look like your typical hoods.

They’re a quartet of supermodel-level beauties (led by real-life supermodel Gisele Bundchen) who have the FBI and NYPD tied up in knots.

Breaking the case means Washburn and Belle must stop bickering for five minutes and start working together.

Where did they ever come up with that dynamic for a mismatched-buddy comedy?

Along the way, we meet Washburn’s mom, a tipsy type played without embarrassment by Ann-Margret. To watch the still-fiery redhead slurp margaritas and utter lame “jungle fever” jokes is to wish Hollywood would respect its elders.

The film’s sole wrinkle is casting Jennifer Esposito as Washburn’s perpetually flustered boss, who inexplicably once dated him back in their academy days.

Not a spark of chemistry, though — humorous or otherwise — passes between them.

Tim Story, who oversaw the sleeper hit “Barbershop” (2002), proves as out of his element here as Mr. Fallon looks with a badge. Mr. Story’s chase sequences may throb with power, but the comedic sequences nearly always stumble.

Case in point: Washburn tries to leave a tight parking space, but repeatedly bangs the bumpers of both cars around him. All the while, Mr. Story’s camera offers tight shots of the pinched bumpers — as if we couldn’t decipher what was making that unholy noise.

Is this the man being entrusted to bring Marvel’s Fantastic Four series to movie houses next summer?

Similarly, Miss Latifah’s character — so sloppily written that the script probably just told her to crack wise as needed — isn’t likable enough to warrant our patience. The film routinely testifies to her feisty brilliance when all we want is for her to unlock that snarky grin and let her humanity shine through.

Her plus-size Belle does lend some balance to the cinematic universe of lithe leading ladies, especially in her pairing with muscle-bound actor Jesse Simmons (of “NYPD Blue” fame).

We’re not sure what Mr. Fallon can do with Washburn. He’s as irritating as a Gilbert Gottfried film festival, and he sneaks by his first major film role without netting a laugh. On “SNL,” Mr. Fallon scored with his sharp impersonations and insouciant grin. None of those talents translates in this loud and ludicrous vehicle.

*

TITLE: “Taxi”

RATING: PG-13 (Comic violence, partial nudity, alcohol abuse)

CREDITS: Directed by Tim Story. Written by Robert Ben Garant, Jim Kouf and Thomas Lennon, based on a 1998 film by Luc Besson.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

WEB SITE: www.taximovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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