I often like to play a mental game with movie history that I call “What If ___________ Were Star Wars,” where I try to imagine what that history would be like if a certain movie had the same level of popularity and creative or financial influence as Star Wars. With Peter Yates’s 1976 masterpiece about private ambulance drivers in Los Angeles, Mother, Jugs & Speed, we get a sense of what movies would be like if Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H had been the most popular and influential movie of all time.
In fact, Mother, Jugs & Speed wears the influence of M*A*S*H on its sleeve. Both films alternate between high drama and bawdy comedy in rather episodic plots about people who stressfully deal with life and death on a daily basis. Both parody the ineffective authority figures and the labyrinthine, contradictory bureaucracies that the characters must work around. And like M*A*S*H, Mother, Jugs & Speed would have made a great TV series. In fact, at least a pilot was shot for such a series in 1978, though an extra “g” was added to the middle name.
The film follows the employees of the the F + B Ambulance Company, led by owner Harry Fishbine (Allen Garfield). The episodic plot addresses the bureaucratic problems of a system that allows for privatized ambulance services. Ambulance drivers have to collect their fees from patients or their families before the patients can be taken away, to bribe police in order to get dibs on emergency calls, and to deal with other legal limitations on the job. One particular ambulance driver, “Mother” Tucker (Bill Cosby), thrives in the chaos of the system, manipulating it to his advantage, while his antagonist in the company, Murdoch (Larry Hagman), exploits the system in a more insidious way.
Meanwhile, after Murdoch’s partner is injured in an accident involving an overweight patient and a rickety staircase, Fishbine hires Tony Malateste (Harvey Keitel), a cop suspended for drug dealing who is looking for a temporary job while his case is being investigated. Tony gets the nickname “Speed” once his checkered past is revealed to the other drivers. He’s also the only driver who manages to get anywhere with the office receptionist and dispatcher, Jennifer (Raquel Welch), who most refer to as “Jugs.” Jugs later gets her EMT license, which opens the door for some jokes about women drivers, and she’s teamed with Mother and Speed. In her first outing, Mother has her help a patient who got his junk stuck in his zipper, but later she has to deal with the tragic consequence of a pregnant mother who isn’t allowed into the nearest hospital.
In retrospect, some of Mother, Jugs & Speed‘s apparent rebelliousness seems quaint. Arguments about women drivers, frequent depictions of drug use, and much of the film’s racial politics might have been edgy in 1976. However, in many other ways, the film has an edge that remains sharp. Much of that edge lies in Larry Hagman’s repulsive yet hilarious c Murdoch. Murdoch hits on every woman he sees (including an injured lady wrestler who doesn’t respond kindly to his advances), takes bets on the number of corpses they’ll pick up in a shift, and, in one of the film’s more unsettling scenes, attempts to molest an O.D.ed and unconscious co-ed. It’s Murdoch’s meltdown that provides the movie’s sudden climax.
The movie also features a strange collision of acting styles that almost doesn’t work. Cosby, Hagman, and Allen Garfield all give exaggerated, cartoonish performances that meld with the heightened energy these ambulance drivers must maintain. Keitel, however, seems like he’s in a different movie, utilizing a more subdued, brooding style appropriate for his early roles in Scorcese films. Meanwhile, Raquel Welch gives a spirited performance that doesn’t get lost in the extremes she has to navigate.
Despite some dated elements, this movie merges tragedy with dark comedy in a way that’s recklessly entertaining. Cosby is having fun in a way that he often seemed to do in the 70s, but Larry Hagman provides the biggest surprise. Though he became known for playing the egotistical jerk J. R. Ewing, Murdoch is a different kind of jerk. Going back to that movie history mental game, if movies like M*A*S*H and Mother, Jugs & Speed had a greater influence on today’s filmmakers, we could get this style of satire applied to the current state of health care, which we could probably use right now.