Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976)

D: Peter Yates
S: Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel

Sprightly black comedy given to sharp shifts in tone rather than a consistent atmosphere of gravedigger humour, centring on the life of freelance ambulance drivers in a small Los Angeles company run by Allen Garfield and populated by the usual cross-section of misfits and miscreants with hearts of gold. "Mother" is Bill Cosby (Uptown Saturday Night), the protective veteran who oversees the whole of the crew. "Jugs" is Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C.), the standoffish company secretary seemingly immune to the testosterone-filled environment in which she works. "Speed" is new guy Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), a former police officer and Vietnam vet with a drugs charge hanging over him.

Director Peter Yates (Bullitt) and writer/producer Tom Mankiewicz (working from a story concocted by Mankiewicz and Stephen Manes) have succeeded in representing the edgy world of the freelancers with a realistically haphazard approach to plot and story. There is no central narrative thread as such. It is more of an episodic ensemble piece in which a variety of incidents illustrate the character dynamics and establish some thematic material on the subject of life and death arising naturally out of the setting. There are one or two genuine shocks in there which serve to remind audiences of the seriousness of what they are seeing, yet there is a loose and breezy sense of humour (best exploited by Cosby and by Larry Hagman (Fail Safe, TV's I Dream of Jeannie) as a sex-obsessed member of the crew) which keeps it from getting too grim.

The film is nonetheless at its best when it is being least serious. The initial scenes which establish the working world of the company and the crew are fast, lively, and very funny. Garfield is very amusing as the harried owner who rallies his troops with talk of their standard rates and competition from a rival company, and there is a nice variety of assorted encounters with the denizens of Los Angeles which introduce us to the various characters. Though the humour remains throughout, once things begin to turn more reflective following a crucial incident about forty minutes in, it is never as convincing. It tries (unsuccessfully) for a MASH-type atmosphere, but it lacks Altman's consistency of directorial vision. Though Cosby does his best to show the darker side of his character, and though the script attempts to compensate for its initial sexism with a sub-plot involving equal rights, it is always the more actionful scenes which provide the most insight into how these people orient themselves to their world. There are nice, reflective touches though, such as a moment involving Cosby's temporary pause in the harassment of a group of local nuns (a habit which also provides the film with its cathartic finale), and the moments of meaningful silence following the climactic shoot out in the company offices.

Though consistency is not really the issue, or the problem, editor Frank P. Keller (Bullitt) seems uncomfortable with the pacing of the film. The shifts between dialogue exchanges and physical action are frequently too jumpy to be a deliberate stylistic choice, and the oscillating rhythm does not always work to the film's advantage. This, coupled with the script's inability to achieve exactly the right balance between darkness and light, results in an overall feeling that while the movie accomplishes more or less what it sets out to, it might have been better with defter handling. Nonetheless Yates and his cast are to be complemented for a refreshingly off-beat and usually engaging slice-of-life which should appeal to fans of the cast and will provide pause for thought amid the laughs and car chases.

From a contemporary perspective, the film holds up surprisingly well against many of the 'hipper' films of its era. The presence of Bruce Davison, Hagman, and Keitel in the cast may be of more interest to some than that of then stars Cosby and Welch. It is especially interesting to revisit this film in the wake of Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, to which it bears some passing resemblance, and find that, in its own way, it has almost as much to say and says it nearly as well, albeit in quite a different timbre than the later work.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.