BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 11, 2004
In the first few oh-so-riveting minutes of Tim Story's remake of the French hit, Taxi, two undercover cops infiltrate the offices of Cuban phone card scammers. One actor is believable, but his fake-mustachioed partner hails from another planet, sporting retro-1970s leather and a terrible (and terribly inconsistent) Scarface accent. The idea is that this cop--this tries-too-hard hack--will blow the deal, and thus win laughs. When asked by the crooks where in Cuba he's from, the stupid cop answers, "Castro Street." When he attempts to persuade them further, he over-pronounces a Cubanized version of the word "man," screaming, "Mang, Mang!" It's routine enough for a slapstick insta-comedy made of cheap situations and superficial plot points. What's unique about it, though, is that the actor playing the inept cop who can never seal the deal enjoys the same limitations as his character and therefore doesn't have to, well, act. That actor, if we can use such a term to describe him, is Jimmy Fallon.
The Jimmy Fallon we know--the "Saturday Night Live" alum who can't keep a straight face during a sketch--seduces young female viewers because of his boyish ineptitude. The 30-year-old has made a career of channeling a twelve-year-old who watches too much Pee Wee Herman. He has embraced the look of immature indie rockers with bed-head hair and has hence become the prankster man-child who poses no threat, the guitar-strumming class-clown boyfriend who just wants to make you giggle and will never take advantage of you because, well, how could he?
More ridiculous, Fallon will likely retain his high level of popularity as long as he continues to work. Most "Saturday Night Live" alums leave the nest and hedge a bet on whether or not they can act; they face complete failure if they can't deliver the goods. Jimmy Fallon's schtick is about never being able to deliver. And therein lies the ultimate in Hollywood job security. Just keep doing what you do--almost being funny--and you can keep your ($150 retro t-)shirt. Who, after all, wants to hone skills of timing, characterization, and believability when it's easier to slide through the gates of acceptableness because, like, there's a bankable market for your adolescent incompetence?
Indeed Fallon is so barely-there as a comedic presence in Taxi, which comes down to nothing more than bank-robbery chase scenes and forced Fallon gaffes, that the producers had to hire the inordinately alive Queen Latifah to play his domineering partner-in-crime. She played off the comedic master Steve Martin in the less-terrible but far-from-funny Bringing Down the House. In that film she was the side dish to a true comedian. Here she's the main course; she has no choice.
Fallon's rise to fame is both somewhat curious and indicative of how the "Saturday Night Live" franchise has superficially recycled itself over the years. Fallon bombed his first audition for the show, but later impressed producer Lorne Michaels by imitating then-"SNL" mainstay Adam Sandler at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles. Adam Sandler, for all of his childlike silliness, was an original; I doubt he got his job impersonating, say, Chevy Chase. And though it's always impressive when a comedian can imitate one of his elder peers, the idea that someone could make it onto a national comedic stage for having successfully imitated an act that even wears thin on Adam Sandler fans seems questionable. Sandler's act isn't effective on its own; the personal charm that he brings to it makes it work, and even then it's hit or miss.
Once Fallon made it onto the show, he never really managed to grow into a character of Adam Sandler's quality (who, with all due respect, never achieved the comedic virtues of Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, John Belushi, Mike Myers, or Dana Carvey). Fallon came to "SNL" with too many easy jobs to fill. He became a Boston teenager who drinks too much (the accent was fine, but the role wasn't a stretch). He sang pop song parodies, guitar in hand, that were just about good enough for the local cover-band bar. Despite releasing an album of his work he never established his own truly funny style of parody songwriting like Adam Sandler, who showed an individual strangeness when his falsetto danced around the sonic stratosphere. Fallon strained to play "Nick Burns, your company's computer guy," an always-forced impression of an I.T. worker frustrated at office employees who can't understand why their computers crash. He mimicked Mick Jagger, pursing his lips, and winning acclaim for his skin-and-bones rock star-like face. And then when he won the opportunity to sit beside Tina Fey, "SNL" head writer and a resident wit, he never had to do more than look cute and say silly things while his smart friend picked up the slack with off-the-cuff one-liners and occasional jokes at Fallon's expense. Certainly he must have written some if not half of the material: "Because they are sluggish and no longer amuse the public, a number of middle-aged chimpanzees in a German zoo are being sent to early retirement. Zoo officials said they knew the chimps were slowing down when they started throwing their poop underhand."
In effect Jimmy Fallon got by for just, well, being there; his humor wasn't ever flavorful or offensive enough to turn anyone off too strongly. He's a dime-store mimbo, beloved for his look and feel. Even his successful "SNL" sketch about a shock jock who changes his voice 20 times to mimic a rowdy radio morning-show cast was generic. It could have been played by anyone, so clichéd were the voices he chose. Even weak players like Tracy Morgan, who never proved himself inordinately talented, could, in fact, win laughs for qualities intrinsic to his person (his bug-eyed stares or the way he screams "That's Hilahhrious!"). People like to criticize Fallon's "SNL" colleagues like Chris Kattan who has played a strange ape-boy, Antonio Banderas, and the ambisexual Mango, among other inane characters. But at least players like Kattan had character and could communicate it.
At first Fallon got the laughs because he couldn't finish a sketch without cracking himself up. His nervous laughter made you laugh. But it got tiresome and all you had left was his cute boyishness. One felt a sense of dread each time he appeared with Horatio Sanz because you knew they'd never get through their bit. Later, as Fallon became more mature, you realized that the few sketches he could complete like a professional just never took. Fallon is always better when he fails to succeed, and that's a cop-out.
At one point in Taxi, Queen Latifah's Belle flat out tells Jimmy Fallon's Andy, "You try too hard." It's a prescient moment, and you have to wonder if Fallon could have had the egoless curiosity to wonder if in fact the line had been written about him. At the end of the movie, after the duo saves the day, catches criminals, and restores their respective love connections, Fallon appears dressed as a Russian gangster on a stakeout, fake beard, bad leather, and all. Except that he doesn't even look like a bad impersonation of a Russian gangster. He looks like a child imitating a comedian fronting a bad imitation of a Russian gangster. The result is his unique form of job insurance: How can you denigrate, much less fire, someone who messes up all the time when that's his appeal?
Adam Baer is a culture writer based in Los Angeles.
By Adam Baer