Tuesday, September 20, 2011

D.C. CAB (1983)

Once upon a time, the phrase “Directed by Joel Schumacher” was not met with the revulsion and disgust that it is today. Rather, the director was considered with thoughtful indifference. It wasn’t too long ago that filmgoers left a Schumacher film thinking “gee, that could have been a lot worse”, instead of cursing the god that created him. Flamboyant in life but not in his art, Schumacher can be best-thought of as a competent director, serviceable perhaps, before he started putting nipples on everything. In the mid-‘80s, the young writer and director had perhaps already risen to the height of his adequacy with back-to-back successes appealing to the shallow youth in us all, St. Elmo’s Fire (1986) and The Lost Boys (1987). Today, like most of his pre-Batman efforts, these are great soundtracks in search of better movies, but they still managed to rake in enough money at the box office to garner him subsequent work. After writing two flops—Car Wash and The Wiz—Schumacher made his directorial debut with the Lily Tomlin hit, The Incredible Shrinking Woman. And that led him to perhaps his most infamous achievement, D.C. Cab.

Like Car Wash and The Wiz (I guess), D.C. Cab is another street-wise, working class adventure set against a flashy backdrop of poverty. The set up is fresh from dozens of previously made movies: a group of multiculture misfits working in the same environment learn to unite thanks to the intervention of a brand new white boy. In this case, obviously, the titular company is a bottom-feeding hack outfit headed by Barney Miller’s own Max Gail, the fleet driven by the likes of Mr. T, Paul Rodriguez, Bill Maher, Marsha Warfield, Gary Busey, Charlie Barnett and the Barbarian Brothers. The new white boy with the big ideas is Adam “No Relation” Baldwin as Gail’s nephew. The movie has less of a plot than it does a board game goal: get the misfits from start to finish, band together and keep the company from folding into bankruptcy. Accomplish this by first focusing on the disparity of personalities, loudening the profanity and sex jokes (and racist and homophobic jokes, bless their hearts), and then manufacturing some larger-than-life crisis that will point out how these aforementioned differences can be cast aside when push comes to shove and lives are at stake.

You’ve seen this movie. Maybe not this movie, but surely Porky’s, Animal House, Quicksilver, Police Academy. There’s nothing wrong with this formula. It works. It always works. It always will work, no matter how much Paul Rodriguez you throw in there. It even works in spite of the movie’s structure, which seems to operate under the philosophy, “It doesn’t matter if one scene has anything to do with the next so long as we have a cool song playing, somebody swears, and, oh, what the hell, put a lap-dissolve at the end.”

Take, for example, the pre-credits sequence in which the shrill and soon-to-be-hated-at-least-by-me Barnett is chased in his cab by a platoon of other cabs, their drivers wearing comically-sinister rubber masks. After blocking in his ride, they corner him in a dark and locked parking garage. Just as you’re sure that the African-American man wearing a ‘fro of curlers is about to meet his doom, laughter ensues, masks are removed revealing vaguely-recognizable actors playing future characters. Cue credits and then never reference this situation again (except in a vague way towards new white boy Baldwin, who is told that all new drivers have to make “the run”). As a hook, it doesn’t work. As a character-building sequence, it doesn’t work. But as an ease-in for the target demographic, the pot-heads, it works like a dream. So do the multiple brawls, the dirty jokes and every scene where Gary Busey seems to be taunting an off-camera orderly armed with a tranquilizer gun.

In Sweet Liberty (1986), Alan Alda’s character posits that a movie has to contain three elements to be successful with modern audiences: 1.) Disrespect of authority; 2.) Destruction of property; 3.) People taking their clothes off. Check, check, and check. So while D.C. Cab wasn’t the box office smash the studio had hoped for—even with focusing all advertising on Mr. T, who’d become an overnight sensation following the previous year’s smash hit Rocky III—it led a long productive life in video stores and on cable television. This cemented the careers of Schumacher and T, at least and allowed Rodriguez to escape unscathed for another decade. Baldwin would move forward into much more psychopathic roles, culminating in the most beloved character of all time, Firefly’s Jayne Cobb. Eventually, Maher would hang up whatever persona he’d been trying to cultivate as an actor and would evolve into a political satirist. Marsha Warfield found a home on Night Court. And the “special guest star” Irene Cara would survive her inconsequential cameo appearance to become the singing sensation she had been three years prior.

What makes D.C. Cab so fascinating is the sheer number of famous faces present in the film. While working on the index for a collection of reviews, I discovered that 1-out-of-every-6 people I cited either had the movie on their resume or a six-degrees tie to it somehow. Bring the movie up to fellow ‘80s children and you’ll get fond memories from many provided they hadn’t actually seen it since grade school. It’s slipshod editing and seemingly-random direction definitely qualifies it for “guilty pleasure” status. There are plenty of good lines, though Busey gets most of them.

Dell: Heck nobody goes in the army any more, except blacks. Someday one nigger's gonna wakeup and say, "We got the guns and the mustard gas and the tanks, hey were runnin the army!" And they're gonna take over the whole damn country and we'll be in with them already - we'll be Token Whites. Think about it.

Dell: Bruce Lee ain't dead you know. They got him frozen in carbonite down under Chatsworth. They're gonna melt him down as soon as the economy gets better.

However, it’s Barnett, the most grating character, who gets the best tag of any movie of the era, because of a deadpan delivery that had to have been jettisoned early in favor of his shrill “jive-turkey” schtick. It begins when none other than Timothy Agoglia Carey sits down in the back of Barnett’s cab:

Tyrone: Where to?
Angel of Death: I am the Angel of Death. Take me to hell.
Tyrone: Got any luggage?

In short, it’s a movie that doesn’t ask anything of its audience. By the early ‘80s, this sort of controlled chaos was so familiar, the paint-by-numbers plot was unnecessary. The Underdogs become the Good Guys in the end. That’s the slug line that undoubtedly sold the script, that’s sold thousands upon thousands of scripts since the beginning of Hollywood. Nothing else matters except for the number of cars involved in the crash, the big set piece and how insane the various characters are allowed to be. Schumacher could have delivered a movie cobbled out of left-over frames from the countless comedies that came before it and it still would have made money. It’s the mantra of Meatballs: “It Just Doesn’t Matter”. A paycheck for the fantasy football cast; something to flash across the eyes in an air conditioned theater during a hot summer day. Subversive only to those who still believe that “they shouldn’t be allowed to say stuff like that!”

This low-expectation continues to attract the audiences today. There’s no difference between D. C. Cab and Hot Tub Time Machine or The Hangover or Hall Pass save the faces occupying the blank spaces where characters should be. We’re living in a green society; what better recyclable material than Hollywood comedy?

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