In the early 1970s, lots of washed-up former sitcom stars were given “comeback vehicles” (that should probably read “potential comeback vehicles”) at the top of the bill in cheap family films. The most notorious example is probably Disney tapping Bob Crane to play the title role in “Superdad,” which probably isn’t actually the worst bit of casting when you consider how many kids he probably had running around out there.
Not to be outdone by the big studios, legendary (as far as these things go) exploitation house Avco Embassy got ahold of a script called Wacky Taxi in 1972 and figured it would be perfect for the patriarch of the Addams Family himself, the one and only John Astin.
I won’t mice words here, I absolutely love this guy. How can you not? Every time he popped up as a guest star on risible 80s sitcoms like “Night Court,” he had that same batshit-insane gleam in his eye that he trademarked as Gomez and invariably livened up the otherwise dreary proceedings just by his very presence. And for that reason alone I really — and I mean really — wanted to like Wacky Taxi (also released, as you can see from the poster, under the title Pepper and his Wacky Taxi).
Unfortunately, everything about this movie sucks, including Astin’s performance. The guy looks like he’s literally sleepwalking through the film — not that I blame him, I’d probably do exactly the same thing if confronted with a story this agonizingly dull.
I hate to burst your expectations (actually, I’d hate for you to even have any expectations about this movie), but there’s very little actual “wackiness” here at all. In fact, it’s a pretty somber and morose little flick, with a tedious and dreary “pick yourself up by your bootstraps and everything will turn out fine” moral shoehorned into it to make the proceedings not only boring, but annoying, as well. Really. Save that kind of message for those “Legless Girl Runs Marathon On Her Hands” stories stuffed in the back pages of the National Enquirer and other right-wing tabloids to promulgate their mean-spirited “see? the unfortunates of society don’t really need any help from us, they can do amazing things on their own” worldview.
Anyhow, to the plot, such as it is — Astin plays Pepe “Pepper” Morales, a big-dreaming Mexican-American (an atrocious bit of casting since even though he did play a guy named Gomez on TV, Astin doesn’t actually look particularly Hispanic) who lives with his wife, Maria (woodenly played — not that the script requires anything more — by Maria Pohji) and their four kids in sunny San Diego, California. With another mouth to feed on the way (here’s an idea for an actual, realistic message for the film — don’t have more kids than you can afford!) Pepper decides the time is now to quite his decent-paying but soul-destroying job at an aluminum can factory, raid the family “savings account” kept in a coffee can in the kitchen, buy a piece of shit, dilapidated 1959 Cadillac, paint the word “Taxi” on its sides and top, and hit the streets looking for fares without actually, you know, getting a cab license, insurance, or any of that other pesky legal crap. Smart guy.
At this point, you’d figure that if his wife had any sense at all she’d dump the guy, but then that wouldn’t be in keeping with the “family values”-type themes on display here, so instead she dutifully sticks by him as he goes about this shit-for-brains scheme.
Cruising around town in his illegal cab, Pepper decides the best way to drum up business is to pull up to people not only trying to hail cabs but waiting for buses, as well, and not only undercut standard taxi prices, but undercut the going bus fares, as well! He hauls carloads of naval servicemen to the base for 60 cents apiece (probably not a decent chunk of change even in 1972), and takes a female enlistee to Tijuana for reasons unspecified (actually, he won’t cross the border — but she pays him 20 bucks to wait for her on the US side for two hours, whereupon she returns, crying — now let’s see here, what would she have to go to Tijuana for two hours for that would have her coming back teary-eyed? Two years before Roe v. Wade? Keep in mind this flick was pitched to family audiences — good luck explaining that little plot twist to your six-year-old!). He takes a fast-talking, fast-eating blowhard (played by Allan Sherman, the guy who sang “Camp Grenada”) to the airport and gets hassled by the cops for not having either a standard taxi license or an airport sticker. He hauls an arguing family home from said airport. And then his cab gets stolen when he leaves it running with the door open while he carts their luggage in.
Maybe it’s for the best, though, because along the way there are, actually, some voices of sanity trying to tell him to quit this crazy scheme. His brother-in-law, a fly-by-night lawyer (portrayed by Ralph James), is the first to clue Pepper into the fact that he needs a cab operator’s license, a fare box, and insurance (he hadn’t thought of any of that stuff), and his buddies from the factory tell him that “big business” will be out to destroy him (setting up in the viewer’s mind, if only for a moment, a “Pepper-vs.-The Man” theme that would make sense, and make for at least a semi-involving plot, but which nonetheless never materializes).
Pepper isn’t hearing any of it, though. He’s determined to get his supposedly “wacky” taxi back and pursue his dream of building an empire to rival Yellow, Checker, or any of the other big-time cab outfits. He gets arrested trying to bust into a storage locker where he thinks he sees the car. He escpaes from police custody (by asking if he can get a drink of water and then making a run out the door of the station) and proceeds to walk around aimlessly, sit around aimlessly, lie around aimlessly — you get the picture, He’s a broken man.
To relieve the monotony of doing nothing all day long, he goes on a bender and , while walking home form the bar, he thinks he spots the guy who stole all his hopes and dreams (well, okay, his ’59 Caddy). He follows the “culprit” home, rings his doorbell, the guy (ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sinatra Jr.! — yes, really!) answers, and Pepper proceeds to attempt to strangle him after asking nicely to get his “cab” back and being met with a “what the fuck are you talking about, buddy?” response (again, good luck explaining this one to your kids — “Daddy, why is Pepper choking an innocent man?”). The other people in the house, whoever the hell they are, knock Pepper out, and next thing you know —
He’s back at home having his bruises and scars attended to by his ever-faithful wife. How and why he didn’t end up back in the slammer is anyone’s guess, maybe he just apologized nicely after regaining consciousness and Frank Sinatra Jr., stand-up guy that he is, decided not to file charges.
Cue more doing nothing. Until Pepper’s teenage son (by the way, we never learn the names of any of his offspring, and Pepper himself just refers to them as “ninos”) tires of his old man’s lethargy and gets a huge groups of probably 50 or so neighborhood kids together to scour the city until they find the (again, supposedly “wacky”) taxi.
Which they do. In a junkyard. At which point Pepper races over there on foot like a man possessed and, I guess, gets it out, either by finance or force. Not that we ever see him do this, since at this point we “treated” to a series of flashbacks to all the good times Pepper had earlier in the movie in his self-declared “cab.”
And then, the epilogue — dear God, the epilogue. Pepper’s brother-in-law loans him the money to buy a taxi operator’s license and a fare box, and loans him some more when it’s time to expand his operation. In no time at all, “Pepper, Inc.” (where’d he ever come up with that name?) is the most successful taxi operation in town, and he keeps his original “wacky” taxi on display in the parking lot as a nostalgic reminder of how his empire began. The. Fucking. End.
Wacky Taxi is now available on DVD, double-billed with Italian low-budget wrestler-turned-superhero “classic” Superargo Vs. The Faceless Giants as part of Code Red’s Exploitation Cinema series. Again, as seems to frequently be the case with these releases, the Code Red label itself is nowhere to be found and instead it’s been put out under the until-very-recently defunct Saturn Productions label for whatever reason. The picture is presented in a 16:9 anamorphic transfer that’s got the occasional emulsion line and the more-than-occasional grain and speckle, but on the whole it looks cleaner than you’d probably expect it to and frankly a whole hell of a lot better than it probably deserves to. The sound is standard mono, nothing special, but gets the job done just fine, especially considering the seriously lame nature of the cloying “life is sunny and great”-type songs penned by jazz semi-legend Willie Ruff.
On a final note, while the credits for the film list TV veteran Alex Grasshoff as the director, IMDB actually has Astin himself down as co-director. All I can say is that I really, sincerely hope it’s not true. I’d hate to lose any more estimation for him than I already have.
This is bad stuff, to be sure — horrendous, even — but at least we’ll always have reruns of The Addams Family on somewhere to remind us of how great John Astin was. Most of the time.