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Happy Anniversary: Jimmy Fallon — From <I>Taxi</i> to <I>The Tonight Show</i>

Monday night marked the beginning of Jimmy Fallon's career as the host of NBC's venerable The Tonight Show, a job that -- based on his predecessor -- he'll either have for three decades or nine months. In an amusing bit of timing, Fallon's promotion to late night's top spot arrives exactly ten years after his bid to become an A-list movie star. That's right, 2004 was the year Taxi zoomed into theaters… and then zoomed out again just as quickly, effectively ending Fallon's big-screen career. In case you don't recall (and honestly, why would you), the wacky buddy comedy cast the then recent-Saturday Night Live refugee as a bumbling cop with a deep-seated fear of driving who teams up with a road crazy taxi driver (Queen Latifah) to take down a crew of smoking hot bank robbers… because that's what happens in wacky buddy comedies. To mark the occasion of Fallon's new gig, I watched Taxi and his maiden Tonight Show episode back-to-back to see how they stacked up against each other.

Director
Taxi: Fox entrusted Taxi -- a remake of a Luc Besson-produced French movie -- to Tim Story, who was just coming off a massive hit with Barbershop and would eventually go onto make Fantastic Four. You can tell this is a transitional movie for the director, since he handles the small-scale stuff decently enough, but completely flubs the action sequences, which are a chopped-up mess of screeching tires and blatantly shot-on-a-soundstage behind-the-wheel action.
The Tonight Show: Late night television doesn't exactly allow much room for auteurist flourishes, but the show's new main title sequence was helmed by hometown boy Spike Lee and it has his typical pizazz and eye for New York landmarks. Plus, it's much cooler to boast "I was in a Spike Lee joint for five minutes," than "I was in a Tim Story joint for 97 minutes."
Winner: The Tonight Show

Use of New York
Taxi: I lived in New York while Taxi was being shot in late '03 and have memories of cursing the production for making my already complicated commute even more complicated. Cost to my personal time aside, though, I do have to admit that the extensive location shooting does at least give the movie some local color and, better still, reminded me just how much the city has changed over the past decade. For instance, when the cab speeds through Times Square, the long-vanished Virgin Megastore could be seen in all its bright red glory! What's even stranger, though, is that none of the pedestrians are taking snapshots of the taxi-related chaos with their iPhones, which makes the movie feel practically Stone Age.
The Tonight Show: Taxi has the clear advantage here as The Tonight Show is obviously going to be stage-bound. Still, kudos to Fallon for giving viewers at least a small taste of New York through that rooftop U2 concert with the city skyline in the background; and going forward, there will likely be filmed bits that get him out and about as well. Hey, maybe he can do a bus tour of Taxi locations!
Winner: Taxi

Non-Threatening Black Co-Star
Taxi: In some ways, Taxi is designed to be Queen Latifah's star vehicle rather than Fallon's, and she's far more at ease behind the wheel than her newbie co-star and provides what few laughs the movie has to offer. And in fact, the movie arrived at the height of her "Queen"-ness, having recently scored an Oscar nomination for Chicago and a big fat commercial hit with Bringing Down the House. Unfortunately, it was pretty much all downhill from here, as box-office returns and roles dried up until she also was driven into the talk show host racket (daytime rather than late night department).
The Tonight Show: The choice of Will Smith to be Fallon's very first Tonight Show guest would have been huge news… if this was 2004. A decade later though, the Fresh Prince is coming off a massive summer bomb (After Earth) and a rash of missed career opportunities. (Really Will? You said no to Django Unchained????) At least Latifah was in her movie star prime making Taxi; at this point, it feels like Will Smith needs The Tonight Show far more than The Tonight Show needs Will Smith.
Winner: Taxi

Big Comic Set-Piece
Taxi: While trapped inside a garage, Fallon and Latifah accidentally huff enormous quantities of nitrous oxide until they're both reeling with forced laughter. And you really need a shot of laughing gas to find any of that funny.
The Tonight Show: Okay, Big Willie's appearance did pay off in one respect: that History of Hip-Hop Dancing clip was pretty great.
Winner: The Tonight Show

Best Performance By a Non-Actress
Taxi: Jimmy Fallon wasn't the only person hoping to transition into a movie career via Taxi. The film also marked the "acting" debut of model and ex-girlfriend of Leo Dio (and future wife of Tom Brady) Gisele Bündchen, who plays the ringleader of the band of thieves Fallon and Latifah are tailing. In what was either a conscious directorial choice or the result of lots of post-production tinkering, Gisele has next to no dialogue in the movie, and spends most of her time either smiling seductively or parading around half-dressed… both things that complement her previously established skill set.
The Tonight Show: All Kim Kardashian had to do was walk up to Fallon's desk and slap down a $100 bill as the toll for not believing he'd ever land The Tonight Show job and she couldn't even make that look convincing. Guess it's back to creepy, TMI-laden Kanye videos for you, Kim.
Winner: Taxi

Soundtrack
Taxi: With vintage cuts from Beyoncé ("Crazy In Love" plays over the opening title), The Black Eyed Peas ("Hands Up") and Alicia Keys ("Heartburn"), the Taxi soundtrack is like a Now That's What I Call Music time capsule for early '00s jams. Surprisingly, the film only makes use of Fallon's musical chops once, by having him screech along to Natalie Cole's "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)" as he masters the art of driving, while Latifah looks on with bemused tolerance. Based on his Springsteen fetish, they shoulda gone with "Born to Run."
The Tonight Show: When The Roots are the house band, you can count on things getting funky early and awesomely. Even a phoned-in U2 performance can't keep ?estlove down.
Winner: The Tonight Show

Best Celebrity Cameo
Taxi: "Hey, who's that dweeby guy playing that dweeby low-level police officer? Huh… some dude named Patton Oswalt. He's funny -- he should be in more stuff." (What everyone thought in 2004.)
The Tonight Show: Kimmie K. aside, that roll call of $100 payer-uppers was pretty inspired, especially when Fallon's former Weekend Update co-anchor (and the Sandy to his Danny) Tina Fey made her inevitable, but still most excellent appearance.
Winner: The Tonight Show

Use of Fallon
Taxi: Fallon's innate "Like me!" eagerness was a plus on Saturday Night Live, as well as his subsequent hosting career. But it just comes across as desperate in the context of a narrative feature, as he shamelessly mugs for the non-existent live audience behind the camera. Perhaps under the guidance of a stronger director, he would have felt compelled to buckle down and give an actual performance, but he approaches each scene as a comic bit… an attitude that's supremely annoying over the course of an hour-and-a-half long runtime. It doesn't help that the bits themselves -- including an extended sequence where he dresses up as a Cuban gangster -- are often painfully unfunny, like those awful "Jarret's Room" sketches dragged out to 90 minutes.
The Tonight Show: You can read our full take here. Suffice to say, Fallon's a lot easier to like when there are commercial interruptions.
Winner: The Tonight Show

Final Tally: The Tonight Show: 5/Taxi: 3. Taxi may have driven Fallon's dreams of movie stardom into a ditch, but at least that ditch was located adjacent to a far more lucrative job in late night. In that respect, you could say it's the best thing that ever happened to his career.

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