Car Wash is essentially one of those “day in the life” movies that pop up from time to time. Sometimes those films depict a day in the life of a restaurant, or a record store, or an office building. This one shows a day in the life of a car wash in Los Angeles in 1976. There’s no plot. The car wash is not about to get bought by a rival car wash and no there’s no competition or dance-off at the end. The story doesn’t follow one particular employee, and there is no leader. This is an existential comedy about the lives of the men (and one woman) who work at the car wash, the customers who come into the business, and the characters who exist around the periphery. I adore this film. The characters that populate the car wash are lively and oozing with charisma, the tone is often charming without venturing too far into goofy, and the script is less concerned with individual jokes and more invested in producing an overall atmosphere. Car Wash was conceived as a musical, but Universal ended up steering this vehicle (you see what I did there?) toward the silver screen instead, and the movie never shakes its musical roots. This is also what I’d consider to be a “soft” Blaxploitation movie in that it has an awful lot of elements of Blaxploitation, but doesn’t fully commit in the way that many of those films do. In fact, it feels kind of like a hybrid of American Graffiti and the urban comedies of the mid-seventies. This is probably because it was written by Joel Schumacher--yes, THAT Joel Schumacher, the man who would one day direct D.C. Cab, St. Elmo’s Fire, and The Lost Boys, and was directed by Michael Schultz, whose filmography includes Cooley High and The Last Dragon, two Blaxploitation classics. The end product is a highly-commercial movie that feels a little bit safe, but is such a blast that I don’t mind.
Predator). Melanie Mayron, director of Mean Girls 2, plays the cashier and receptionist. Her character is heartbreakingly adorable, but also more than able to take care of herself among all this testosterone. There are MANY more actors in the cast with no one performer starring as the lead. There are also lots of recognizable faces in walk-on roles, and that’s part of the fun. Watch for Lorraine Gary, who played Ellen Brody in Jaws and two of its three sequels. Danny DeVito even shot scenes for this movie, but his stuff got cut. I mentioned that this movie feels at least partially like it was inspired by American Graffiti, and I think that’s probably the closest thing I can point to as far as the basic structure. Our characters all have their own cares and concerns, and we’re given short glimpses into the motivations of each one to show us what makes them tick. Some of these characters are happy and some of them aren’t, but they all come together at the car wash. The movie starts at the beginning of the day and we follow all the way up to when the employees punch out to go home. Personally, I would be happy to follow most of these characters for days. It’s a huge compliment to the movie that it leaves me wanting more.
But there are so many things that I appreciate about this movie. The music, the atmosphere, have I mentioned the cast? Plus, Car Wash seems to have some subtle things to say about racism and prejudice and equality in the workplace without beating its audience over the head with any of it. Different characters want different things, but the movie does take time to show that people can get stuck in a place they never thought they’d find themselves with no easy way out. There are no sermons, and the film only stops the fun momentarily to meditate on some heavier things, but there’s undeniably some substance beneath the funky antics.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!