RETRO REVIEW: Hanging Out With MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED at The Strand

Posted on: May 17th, 2014 By:

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976); Dir. Peter Yates; Starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel, Larry Hagman;  May 18 at the Strand Theatre @ 3:00 PM.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

One of the truest joys of watching retro movies is that so many of them could never, ever be made today. We like to think of culture as a steady march of progress, but it’s more like a cycle of tides, with some particular mood cresting before receding, like the way the risqué shocks of the 1920s eventually morphed into the repressed sexuality of the 1940s. Moments come and go all the time, and what made sense for one era and one particular group of people can seem like it was beamed in from another world just a few years down the line. It’s not that they “don’t make them like they used to.” It’s more of a question of how they were ever made that way to begin with.

For example, look at MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED, one of the strangest studio comedies produced during a very strange period of the mid-1970s when the rules about mainstream movies had shaken themselves apart and nobody quite knew how to put them back together. One part workplace comedy, another part slobs-versus-snobs, but also part serious social drama, MOTHER exists in a kind of weird pocket outside of genre. If you haven’t seen it, there’s no easy point of context to prepare you for what to expect.

Just going off the title, it’s easy to imagine MOTHER as a forerunner to the trucker-film craze kicked off by Burt Reynolds a year later in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977), but although the title characters are certainly drivers, their wheels are attached to Los Angeles ambulances instead of highway big rigs, and their antics are more in service of retaining their sanity over making a big score. Mother (Bill Cosby) is an irreverent veteran driver tasked with breaking in the rookie Speed (Harvey Keitel), so named because of his past selling drugs as an undercover cop. Mother and Speed encounter rival companies, tension with other drivers (including Larry Hagman in a pervy supporting role), and a loose collection of setups and punchlines, all the while hoping to make enough dollars to keep themselves and their business afloat. Meanwhile, the unfortunately-nicknamed Jugs (Raquel Welch) moves to escape her job as the dispatch and den mother for the boys and become the first female driver in her staunchly chauvinistic profession.

Welch’s plotline exemplifies the film’s jarring shifts in tone. Viewers are invited to laugh along with the drivers and the wacky ways in which they let off steam—Cosby, in particular, is at the peak of his talent and delivers plenty of laughs—but the film also aspires to blow the lid off of what was, at the time, a pretty scandalous industry. In an effort to maximize profits, drivers would sabotage rivals, bribe police officers, and invent phony fares to milk government kickbacks. Less the lifesavers that their marketing would have you believe, the ambulance business was more like a taxi service with steeper leverage over its customers. If you weren’t worth the driver’s time, then good luck finding another way to the emergency room.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was the brainchild of animation giant Joseph Barbera (the latter half of the Hanna-Barbera empire) who enlisted Tom Mankiewicz to construct the screenplay. Mankiewicz was a veteran screenwriter who presided over the James Bond franchise during its transition from serious spy fare to pulpier, more audience-friendly material and his particular tastes are all over MOTHER, including pairing slapstick wit and sudden violence. Mankiewicz, in particular, knew how to construct a set piece, as did MOTHER’s director Peter Yates, who helmed the iconic Steve McQueen picture BULLITT (1968) and later the less-successful (but justly infamous) KRULL (1983). MOTHER is likewise stocked with big, high-concept moments that keep things from getting too limp or self-important, which would have been death for a movie that so desperately wants to be a good time.

Ultimately, the real appeal of the film is Cosby, Keitel, Welch, and the rest of the ragtag assembly of drivers. MOTHER, JUGS, AND SPEED is a “hangout movie,” one in which most of the fun comes from revisiting these characters like a group of old friends. That’s another appeal of retro cinema. For better or for worse, even as the world changes around us, our old friends remain exactly the same.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED plays @3:00 on May 18 at The Strand. Get tickets HERE.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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