Review: Taxi! Taxi!

A smart premise gone awry, Taxi! Taxi! is purported to be inspired by Dr Cai Mingjie's biography "Diary of a Taxi Driver: True Stories from Singapore's Most Educated Cabdriver", a local bestseller that chronicles the author's real life travails as a taxi driver after his exile from a well-paying job as a microbiologist. Instead of lending any weight to the film, however, the source material, in the hands of screenwriters Boris Boo, Lee Chee Tian and Violet Lai, gets brutally plundered for lazy jokes and puerile shenanigans which are essentially the film's modus operandi.

Opening with a scene of a woman on the top of a building, the film soon flashes back to when Professor Chua (Gurmit Singh) and Ah Tau (Mark Lee) first meet. Spying Professor Chua on top of a building and suspecting that he is on the verge of committing suicide, Ah Tau hurries over to persuade him not to do anything rash, and the two soon strike up an unlikely but rock-solid friendship. Upon discovering that Chua has lost his job and is unable to find a new one despite repeated attempts, Ah Tau encourages him to become a taxi driver, just like himself.

This is when things start to get prickly. The writers start to pile on contrivances, or at the very least, gross exaggerations, in order to muster up some dramatic momentum. The film would have us believe that Chua withheld knowledge of his retrenchment and new job from his family out of shame, and that part is still plausible. But did his wife really need to be left in the dark? The first to find out about him working as a taxi driver, she only expresses disappointment that Chua lied to her. Otherwise, she's pretty much a shining example of the good wife, supportive of Chua in every way and partaking in his charade to deceive their son (Royston Ong) and mother-in-law (Lai Meng). With such a devoted wife, it's baffling why Chua decided to keep her in the dark in the first place.

Of course, Chua's son and mother-in-law soon find out that he's no longer working as a microbiologist, and they go on to throw all sorts of inane fits. Putting in an awfully over-the-top performance, Lai Meng does no favours to her already unbelievable character. Wouldn't a mother(-in-law) rightfully and naturally be angry at her child for lying to her? No, not this saint. Upon finding out Chua has lied to her about his job, her character registers no anger towards him. Instead, she wails and bellows out self-pitying bullshit about how her life sucks and behaves as if her world is about to crumble. And no, she doesn't express a single iota of worry or concern for Chua. Hers may be the most narcissistic and despicable character to ever appear in a local comedy.

Chua's son at least has the believable reaction of being furious at his dad, even if it is unclear whether his anger is over his dad's lies or his dad no longer being a working scientist. His character would have been a lot more sympathetic were it better written and better acted. But as it is, his fallout with his father exists only for the purpose of facilitating his obligatory eye-mo shedding (those tears at the end are fake as hell) moment of realization that his dad is awesome and great even if he's no longer a scientist.

Chua's buddy Ah Tau has his own fair share of problems too. Being deserted by his wife for apparently being too big of a loser, he's left alone to care for his young son - played by Chua Jin Sen, whose alter ego is the youtube child sensation Dr Jiajia- named, unsurprisingly, Jiajia. He's also pining for an attractive girl who seems to have friend-zoned him.

Mark Lee relishes his role with ah-beng gusto, and turns in a hilarious and heartfelt performance. His performance, as well as Gurmit Singh's, is natural, effortless and enjoyable. The film feels strongest when these two conflicting personalities - Ah Tau is an an uncouth, Hokkien-spewing lout; Chua is a smart, well-educated upper-class denizen - share their scenes together and when director Kelvin Sng plays up their odd couple-ness. Sng infuses their scenes with madcap brio, and they are fun and delightful to watch. The two leads share an authentic, palpable brotherly chemistry, and during their scenes, I believed - if only for a fleeting moment - that we had finally found our first bona fide buddy movie in Taxi! Taxi!.

But every time they share a moving or hilarious scene together, we are either confronted afterwards with another insufferable scene of Chua's family or with another smug, self-satisfied, wildly ingratiating scene of Jiajia (Oooh, look! A seven-year-old boy! How cute!) doing god-knows-what to wring laughs out of the audience. I can't think of any other film in which I was so annoyed by a child character to the point I started actively loathing him. Did every syllable of Jiajia's speech about how he wanted to be a Minister of Parliament really have to be so painstakingly enunciated? Was it supposed to be funny? (I didn't laugh; I just felt bad for Dr Jiajia, who was unwittingly exploited to help the filmmakers make a few more bucks.) Dr Jiajia is an endearing and entertaining Youtube personality, but here we needed less cuteness and more vulnerability and innocence. Which basically means Dr Jiajia was a terrible choice to play the character.

The film's smugness and inanity isn't confined to Jiajia's scenes, however: much of the humour here is lazy and creatively bankrupt. There are few jokes smartly written into the plot or dialogue; what passes for laughs are mostly conjured up in jarring and ultimately superfluous set pieces (a problem shared by many local comedies). The filmmakers' laziness reaches an apex at the scene where Chua En Lai emerges as an uptight policeman, whose long-windedness irritates Ah Tau. What's supposed to be funny about this scene? That he talks in a nasally tone and wears a constipated facial expression? According to Sng and the writers, yes.

Say what you want about Ah Boys to Men, but that recent movie at least exhibited more ambition, and much of its humour was rooted in keen observation - Neo highlighted Singaporean quirks and played them out in an exaggerated fashion for laughs. Most of the humour here is unfortunately untethered to any context, with most of the "jokes" bordering on inane. It wouldn't have been so bad if the melodrama, plot implausibilities (someone goes blind after being knocked over by a car at the hip, are the writers fucking serious?) and preachiness were omitted. But, as is often the case with local fare, such a movie ain't complete without a great big life lesson and happy ending, so instead of getting a simple but possibly effective buddy comedy that didn't concern itself with tiresome moralizing, we get a tonally uneven pseudo-family-drama that stacks up ludicrous plot turns in order to get to its destination. Really, even by the standards of mindless entertainment, Taxi! Taxi! is one painful, odious journey.

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