Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wacky Taxi (1972)

Perhaps because the history of screen comedy is filled with hyphenates, from Charlie Chaplin to Jerry Lewis to Ben Stiller, myriad successful comic actors have felt compelled to attempt writing, producing, and/or directing. The results of these experiments are often grisly. For instance, funnyman John Astin (of The Addams Family fame) more than exceeded the limits of his artistry by co-directing, with Alexander Grasshoff, this harmless but poorly made and profoundly unfunny flick about a fed-up factory worker who quits his job to become an independent cab driver. Made on a meager budget and saddled with a no-name supporting cast, the picture gets off to a wobbly start and never recovers. The opening scene introduces Astin, who is not Latino, as Pepper, a Mexican-American patriarch living in San Diego. Before the audience is given any explanation of the character, Pepper walks off the assembly line and buys a car, which he paints with taxi markings, and then starts looking for fares. A good 20 minutes of screen time elapse before Pepper’s brother-in-law, an attorney named Jaimie (Ralph James), explains that Pepper needs a hack license and insurance to operate legally. How are viewers supposed to root for a character who is so oblivious and reckless, especially since he’s the breadwinner for a family that includes a wife and five children? Had any of the scenes featuring Pepper’s cab-driving misadventures been amusing, the story flaws might have been easier to overlook. Unfortunately, each such scene is less imaginative than the preceding—Pepper gets lost driving to an airport, the cab suffers engine failure, a mystery lady uses the cab for some unknown crime that might be prostitution or smuggling. (The editing is so choppy that significant facts get lost in the shuffle.) Although Astin has a few charming moments, mostly when he’s making caustic asides about misfortune, the overall flow of the movie is so drab, erratic, and repetitive that mining for gold in the lead performance becomes a chore.

Wacky Taxi: LAME

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