Friday, April 06, 2018

Wacky Taxi (1972)

With all the schlocky films I've caught up with of late, it might seem perverse for me to kick off a new series of intermittent write ups with an utterly obscure 1972 would be comedy, but this film was so utterly miserable in every department that it moved me to despair.  Almost.  Let's start with the title: Wacky Taxi (or Pepper's Wacky Taxi, as it was sometimes alternatively known), conjures up visions of some  kind of crazy, slapstick comedy about a taxi firm, involving all manner of crazy hi jinks by the zany characters employed as drivers.  A bit like Carry on Cabby, but set in San Diego.  Indeed, the presence of comic character actor John Astin, one time star of The Addams Family TV series, in the lead gets one's hopes up that this will be the case.  Sadly, I can tell you that, in reality, there is nothing 'wacky' about Wacky Taxi.  It isn't just that the production is utterly poverty stricken, poorly filmed and with tinny sound, (although, to be fair, as it is now a public domain film, the version I was watching could simply have been sourced from from a third or fourth generation video transfer), so much as it is utterly devoid of any apparent notion of how comedy (let alone wackiness) actually works.

The premise of the film is simple: a man dissatisfied with his job in a canning factory (the titular Pepper, played by Astin), walks out one day to pursue his dream of becoming an independent taxi  driver.  To this end, he buys an old wreck, paints the word 'Taxi' on the side, dons a cap and goes out onto the street looking for fares.  Without a permit, without a meter and without insurance.  Which makes him not 'wacky', as the makers clearly think, but utterly irresponsible.  Which, in turn, makes it very difficult for the audience to have any sympathy with him - he's touting for business in a death trap, endangering the lives of passengers and undercutting other honest taxi drivers.  For a brief moment, when Pepper alludes to the other drivers working for established taxi firms that are ripping customers off with their fares, it looks like the movie might develop into a 'little guy sticking it to the man' movie, which might have made Pepper slightly more sympathetic.  But this angle is forgotten about as soon as it is mentioned and what we get instead is a plot-less series of episodes depicting Pepper's various 'wacky' escapades with his various fares.  None of which are remotely amusing, let alone original.

The fact that we're given no context for any of Pepper's decisions doesn't help in terms of character development.  We don't really know why he hated his job at the cannery: was it the boredom?  Poor pay? Lack of union recognition?  We just don't know.  We just see him kicking over a cart full of cans as he walks out.  And why is he obsessed with being a taxi driver rather than any other form of self employment?  Again, we never know.  In fact, aside from the fact that he has a wife and children and apparently is utterly irresponsible, we never really learn anything about him and his motivations.  The film also suffers from serious lapses in internal logic.  We're meant to assume that Pepper uses as a wreck as a taxi and doesn't get a permit, insurance and so on because he can't afford it - yet he still manages to come up with the money to keep having the car repaired after its frequent breakdowns.  Where does the money come from?  With the car off the road, he can't be earning any money, so is he subsidising the repairs with his savings?  In fact, how is he even paying the rent on his house, let alone putting food on the table?

These breakdowns constitute the closest we get to plot development.  These and the theft of the car and Pepper's subsequent attempts to recover it.  (Which is ludicrous - who would steal wreck like his taxi?)  These attempts do nothing to endear Pepper to us - he simply goes around trying to break into complete strangers' garages before attempting to strangle Frank Sinatra Jr (he and Alan Sherman are the film's idea of guest stars), for no other reason than he imagines that Frank has something to do with the theft.  Not surprisingly, barging into an apparent random stranger's house, accusing them of theft on the basis of no evidence and then assaulting them, has dire consequences: the guy's friends give Pepper a bloody good hiding.  With no taxi and nursing the consequences of a beating, Pepper loses all sense of purpose and just mooches around aimlessly (again, how is he paying that rent and household bills?).  But don't worry, his eldest son and his pals find the taxi and Pepper is back on the road, unlicensed and endangering the lives of his fares.

But does Pepper learn anything from his journey?  Obviously not.  Indeed, in an ending which feels like it was tacked on because the makers couldn't think of any other way to end the movie, we find that it is only thanks to the financial intervention of his lawyer brother-in-law that Pepper actually becomes a legal taxi operator, setting up his own firm and playing by the rules.  Which completely undercuts the underlying message of the movie that you can do anything if you try (underlined by several irritating songs on the soundtrack) and that all the poor have to do to prosper is get off their arses and work harder.  (Not to mention flaunt all that nonsensical red tape and idiotic health and safety regulations).  Another thing which left me scratching my head was the question of exactly who the film was aimed at?  All the juvenile antics, not to mention the title and 'feel good' factor implies it was intended for a family audience,  The fact, however, that one of his fares involves taking a female Navy officer over the border for an apparent abortion, would seem to undermine this idea.  That and the fact that Pepper attempts to strangle an innocent man and takes a beating in return.  Not your average family fare.

I'm not sure why I feel so aggrieved about Wacky Taxi and its shortcomings - it isn't as if it cost me anything to watch.  I caught it when it was shown on my local That's TV channel over Easter when they gave up on providing local news for the duration.  But, even for something which has fallen into the public domain, Wacky Taxi is just so miserable, with no redeeming features.  Even John Astin can't seem to be bothered to do anything but go through the motions.  And who can blame him?  Even by Astin's standards - he has appeared in some real stinkers, with alleged comedy western The Brothers O'Toole springing to mind as a particularly poor example - Wacky Taxi is a desperate, barrel scraping, enterprise.



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