Saturday, 29 November 2014

Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976)

Mother, Jugs and Speed is a deeply uneven 1970s black comedy concerning the exploits of a private Los Angeles ambulance company that chases their shouts with a maniacal passion, eager to beat any and all competition. In short, making a buck and getting through the night comes before the welfare of the patients who end up in their rigs. 

The central non PC and self explanatory titular trio consist of 'Mother' Tucker (Bill Cosby) a hard drinking and driving seen-it-all veteran who keeps a beer cooler in the front of his ambulance, a gun in the glove compartment and likes to harass nuns trying to cross the road, 'Jugs' (the gorgeous Raquel Welch) the firm's switchboard operator who has been studying to become an ambulance woman in her spare time and is the butt of the office jokes and come ons thanks to her beauty and prodigious chest, and 'Speed' (Harvey Keitel) a former Vietnam ambulance driver who takes on the job whilst suspended from the police force for allegedly dealing speed. 

Other characters in this ragtag organisation include Larry Hagman as Murdoch, an unsavoury character who tries to rape a comatose college student in the back of his ambulance en route to the hospital, a young Bruce Davison who is tragically shot down by a druggie in one of the film's most dramatic moments and Allen Garfield as the slobbish, shyster owner of the company.  Sadly these supporting characters come and go and have little or no real depth as the film concerns itself with our three leads. This would be OK if the leads were that well written or well played. No real offence to Cosby, Welch and Keitel but the film's tone is so uneven that each one of them seems to be performing in a different movie, specifically Keitel who gives his usual dramatic and thoughtful turn which jars considerably when much around him is being, rightly or wrongly, played for laughs. When the film attempts a romantic subplot between Keitel and Welch it is distinctly unconvincing and ill thought out. Welch might look fantastic and Keitel might be a great actor but it's probably Cosby who judges the material the best and walks the tightrope in the most effective manner. Director Peter Yates really needed to give better notes to the trio because, whilst the film has its moments of both high comedy (such as Raquel Welch having to tend to an overweight man with his you know what caught in his zipper) and high drama (the aforementioned shooting and the death of a woman in child birth having been turned away from one hospital) the actors veer wildly and uncertainly between the two.

There's a feeling here that Mother, Jugs and Speed wants to be something akin to M*A*S*H but in cynically choosing to emulate and ape such a unique mixture of the hard edged and the slapstick that Altman's anti-war film had, it falls somewhat flat because there's no real depth or heart to it. The other difference of course is that M*A*S*H may have had eccentric, foul mouthed anarchic heroes but you knew instinctively that they were giving their all to save lives, Mother, Jugs and Speed's characters are often so deeply obnoxious (and Hagman's is especially a case in point) that such a fundamental core of good naturedness and professionalism is often entirely absent.

Still, you can't beat that earthy humour and cynical edge 70s cinema had and whilst there are better 70s movies out there, there are also worse ones.

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