Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976)

Let’s stop and just ponder the title for a moment. You’ve got an euphemism for a pair of large breasts, an illegal narcotic substance and a matriarchal figurehead sharing the same space in the title. That’s about ambulance drivers. Could this get possibly be any more 70s? Probably not, unless it was an exploitation movie, which it unfortunately is not. As one can surmise from all of this, the movie is very much a glaring product of its time. Not only is it pretty nonsensical in terms of the amount of actual substance that you can find in the story, there’s also plenty of that good old fashioned ‘humorous’ misogyny and sexism, distilled through a filter that claims the movie to be a black comedy. It’s that last part especially that makes it so hard for me to enjoy watching Mother, Jugs & Speed.

It’s vexing, because I actually quite like dark humor. I have a very twisted sense of humor, and in my opinion the late Robin Williams’ brilliant World’s Greatest Dad, where the story is about Robin’s son accidentally dying of autoerotic asphyxiation and Williams exploiting the situation to advance his professional writing and teaching career by making the death look like suicide, is perhaps the best comedy film made in the past decade. It’s just that I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the M*A*S*H school of black humor, where much of the comedy seems to mostly revolve around the main characters acting like self-entitled anti-establishment jerks and the jokes tend to have a particularly tedious mean streak to them, and MJS falls very much in that category. Honestly, now that I think about it, it feels like there’s not even that much actual proper humor in the movie. For the most part it tended to feature a lot of bleak  stuff happening with minimal light hearted gags to counteract the darkness, unless fighting with the boss and getting high and drinking beer while you’re on-duty and driving an ambulance constitutes as gleeful fun. I was actually a bit shocked to learn this was categorized as a black comedy.

Just to give couple of examples what I meant by bleak stuff, at one point you have one of the ambulance drivers,  played by Larry Hagman, trying to rape an unconscious patient during transit to the hospital, until Harvey Keitel, who was driving the ambulance, puts a stop on it. In another instance Cosby witnesses his driving partner getting brutally shot to death when they answer an emergency  call that turns out to be a a ploy by an erratic addict to try and steal drugs from the ambulance. And for the climax for the movie you get a violent shootout where couple of disgruntled ex-employees decide to storm the ambulance service’s headquarters. Stuff like that where there really is no comedic element to it keeps piling up, and you rarely get proper jokes in the middle to make the tone of the movie feel truly humorous. Even some of the supposed jokes that you get are kinda mean spirited. There’s an entire running joke that has Bill Cosby badger nuns by blaring the ambulance siren at full volume whenever he comes across a flock of them crossing the road as they are leaving a church, because apparently harassing women in such fashion constituted as fun forty years ago.

 

The few instances where the humor actually works as it is suppose to, you get some pretty good laughs. When a pair of paramedics try to transport a particularly fat lady (ah, good old fat jokes) down a narrow and poorly maintained staircase and one of them accidentally loses their grip on the stretcher when the stairs break under him due to the excessive weight, you get this great slapstick scene where the obese lady patient tied to the stretcher flies down the stairs at great speed, bouncing around like a ping pong ball against the walls until she is entirely out of the apartment complex and racing down the steep L.A. hills in dangerous fashion until finally the sequence culminates  in the lady crashing head first into a parked car. Perhaps still a bit mean spirited, but the slapstick is just outlandish enough to be funny without feeling too dark and depressing.

I can’t really say I fully enjoyed watching this movie, but there were certain parts that I quite liked. Even though Raquel Welch’s character is called Jugs, she’s not reduced to being just dumb eye candy with enormous boobs for the audience and the cast to ogle at like one would easily assume. Throughout the movie Jugs is shown to be an ambitious and competent worker, speak nothing of her dedication to the job, that is almost to a fault. It did still irk me a little bit that they have her have a small break down after she loses a patient and needs a man to giver her a pep talk before she’s able to get over it and get behind the wheel again. Technically there’s nothing wrong with the idea itself, it’s a good character moment, but it does say something about the attitude towards women when it had to be Welch and not say Keitel, who had to go through the ordeal. The scene is however properly redeemed in execution because the one who does the pep talk isn’t Harvey Keitel, with whom Welch has a romance, but Bill Cosby’s character Mother, who up until that moment had primarily been played as someone who was very against female ambulance drivers. So the movie actually manages to pull the rug from right under you by a clever subversion when Mother ends up helping Jugs to get over her anxiety instead of using the opportunity to preach about how he was right about women not being suitable for harsh jobs like being a paramedic.

As a movie, Mother, Jugs & Speed ends up being a very mixed bag. Unless you’re an aficionado of the 70s aesthetics or you’re a completist digging through the filmography of Cosby, Welch or Keitel, there’s very little reason to put the effort to find a copy, let alone watch it.

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