The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mother, Jugs and Speed

Pick a profession, any profession at all, and I'd bet you can find some sort of humor in it.  Typically, the darker profession the funnier.  Take 1976's Mother, Jugs and Speed which is about a privately owned ambulance company competing with another ambulance company for a contract with the city.  People driving around saving patients who are in pain doesn't seem like an ideal setting for a comedy, but this one works somehow.

It is typical of many 70s comedies because it has a strong ensemble cast, some really quirky humor -- really quirky -- and a few attempts at some fairly raunchy jokes, most of which that don't work.  The movie's first 30 minutes are the best and the funniest with the story getting weirder and weirder (not necessarily for the better) with each passing minute as so many elements are thrown together.  What does work about the second half of the movie is more of a focus on three key characters, Mother, Jugs and Speed.

A cop on suspension (Harvey Keitel) -- he's under investigation for selling drugs -- takes a job with F & B Ambulances, a privately owned company in Los Angeles.  Dubbed 'Speed' by his new co-workers, he finds quite a business going on.  The owner, Harry Fishbine (Allen Garfield), tells Speed a city council meeting is coming up in a week where the company's fate will be decided and for him to not do anything stupid.  He's teamed with Mother (Bill Cosby) in an ambulance and off they go. Speed finds quite the eccentric group of individuals at F&B including Jugs (Raquel Welch), the secretary, and Murdoch (Larry Hagman), a would-be ladies' man, among many others.  Can this crew of weirdos keep it together long enough to keep the company going?

There isn't a plot here as much as a series of vignettes showing the craziness and quirkiness of the job of the ambulance drivers.  The first 20-25 minutes is just gag after gag as Mother and Co. go through a typical night of doing their job.  Because they're privately owned, the drivers have to ask for payment on pickup -- $42.50 and 50 cents a mile -- which does provide some funny moments.  Their rival, United Ambulance, is always competing with them for patients, and neither company is beneath pulling off some shenanigans.  A local police officer (L.Q. Jones) is always willing to help them out as long as his palm is greased.  It probably would have been difficult to maintain that tone throughout the movie when Captain Buzzkill arrives.

It's after that first 30 minutes that the story takes an odd turn.  The script has a lot of different elements, some of which seem incredibly out of place, almost like director Peter Yates couldn't decide which direction to take his movie in. It's slapstick comedy, then dark comedy, then romance, some perverted actions for good measure, and a shootout at the end.  Hagman's Murdoch tries to rape a knocked out patient but still has a job.  Mother beats the crap out of him but for something completely different.  Murdoch disappears and reappears when his craziness is needed for the finale.

Even with all the ridiculousness going on, the cast has a way of righting the ship.  Cosby is great as Mother, the sarcastic driver who always helps run the place and is protective of the company and his co-workers, even if he never shows it to their faces.  A lot of his laughs sound like he improvised them, but the serious side of the character is dead-on, especially one monologue late about the pressures and demands of the job.  He also has one of the weirdest scenes ever in a "massage parlor" where he gets to do some Cosby-isms.  Welch must have groaned when she saw her character's name, but she's good as Jennifer ("Jugs"), the secretary trying to make it as an EMT.  Keitel is good as always -- when wasn't he good? -- as the straight man to all the craziness.  Along with Hagman, some of the other drivers include Bruce Davison as pot-smoking Leroy, NFL legend Dick Butkus as Rodeo, and Allan Warnick as Bliss, the highly intelligent and highly gay driver.

A weird, off the wall 70s comedy if there ever was one.  I wish the story could have been streamlined some more with a decision to go one way or another, but this is still an enjoyable movie.  It's got some good laughs -- one bit early with a runaway gurney is priceless -- but the main reason to see this is the cast, especially the leads.  Cosby, Welch, and Keitel have a great chemistry together and through all the craziness, that's what is worth watching.

Mother, Jugs and Speed <----trailer (1976): ***/****

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