Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976)

 

I have to admit, Mother, Jugs and Speed threw me a curveball. Maybe it was the presence of Bill Cosby that led me to believe this was going to be nothing more than your typical gag-filled, family comedy. Maybe it was the misleading IMDB recommendations that compared this film to The Gumball Rally and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (I’m still scratching my head over that one. The Internet couldn’t possibly be responsible for a faulty comparison could it?). Whatever the case, I was blindsided by the tone of this film, one that is best described as schizophrenic and idiosyncratic in nature. Taking the description one step further, I’m sure some viewers would call it downright vulgar, using poor taste and shock comedy in the worst ways possible. Since I consider myself a rather immense fan of comedy that pushes the boundries of acceptability (when it is done right, mind you) I would tend to disagree with this second way in describing director Peter Yates’ film, even though tonal issues make it a hard film to defend outright when confronted by its most passionate detractors.

Mother, Jugs and Speed follows a ragtag bunch of employees and drivers for a private ambulance service who are tasked with serving the greater Los Angeles area when the shit goes down. Regrettably, since they work in a major metropolitan area, the shit goes down at rather frequent intervals; a fact that is exasperated when combined with the schlocky nature of how their service is run, resulting in mental breakdowns for its employees and the very real possibility of the business having to shut its doors, effectively throwing the white flag up to their competition, the Black Unity Ambulance Company. In addition to these stresses, our movie heroes are also having to deal with what most Americans were in the midst of going through themselves in the mid-70s—inflation, rising unemployment rates, and a general economic malaise. Despite these issues, the owner of F&B Ambulance Company decides to look on the bright side of things: At least they still have a chance to make a buck due to all the muggings, assaults, and malnutrition these problems cause.

The focus of this off-kilter tale is 3 of F&B’s employees. Mother (Bill Cosby) is the best and speediest driver the ambulance service has to offer; a fact made even more impressive since he stays relatively tanked on beer while on the clock; Jugs (Raquel Welch) who runs the company’s switchboard and struggles to become the first female responder in the house; and Speed (Harvey Keitel) a suspended policeman and Vietnam vet who may or may not be guilty of pushing cocaine to children. Other casting highlights include Larry Hagman (cast against type at the time) as Murdoch another F&B employee, one that shows a penchant for having sex with patients in the back of ambulances—their state of consciousness at the time being of little to no deterrent to his ID. The cast ultimately becomes the chief reason to view this mostly forgotten comedy as their chemistry shines through a clunky and tone-deaf script. In particular, Bill Cosby is the standout cast member as he seems to be liberated from his comedic persona; Mother swears, fights, drinks, shoots guns, and irritates nuns for most of the film’s run time, none of which seems to hamper his coworkers views of him, he’s still the rock they come to when life becomes too hard for them to take.

Mother, Jugs and Speed seems to be heavily influenced by Robert Altman’s watershed film M*A*S*H, which came out just 6 years prior to its theatrical debut. It contains the same juxtaposition of romance, obscenities, slapstick, and often times ruthless humor that made that film so popular and led to the umpteen million (of course, this is a slightly hyperbolic statement) films that tried to capture and cash in on its madcap spirit in the wake of its release. While the film isn’t the worst of this bunch, it certainly seems more concerned with recapturing the success of M*A*S*H instead of finding its own voice and rhythm. The end result is a film that, while it contains funny performances, one liners, and set pieces, remains scattershot in direction and in scenes where the actors and director want the emotion and conflict of the characters to really hit the audience where it matters, misses the mark by a wide margin, allowing the scene to land with a resounding thud. In particular the ending seems tacked on; seemingly, the filmmakers couldn’t come up with a more fitting resolution to the 80 minutes that precede it.

With all this being said, I was able to enjoy the film for what it was: a ribald studio comedy that never quite succeeds in building its own identity. Mother, Jugs and Speedcertainly isn’t a bad film, and one can see why it would be able to create a small, but no less dedicated fan base. To me, its legacy is merely that of a goofy film trying to make good; a piece of cinema that was reaching for something greater but happened to get caught up in mimicking a cultural touchstone instead of trying to find its own voice.

-David

 

 

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