“Car Wash” evolved out of the 1970s blaxploitation genre: Schultz, the director, had a hit with the coming-of-age drama “Cooley High,” and the screenplay was by Joel Schumacher, who wrote the Motown-influenced showbiz musical, “Sparkle.” In other ways, too, “Car Wash” is a quintessential 1970s film. Political exhaustion and economic recession are never far below its candy-colored surface.
Unsympathetic reviewers saw “Car Wash” as a lowbrow imitation of “American Graffiti” (1973) or “Nashville” (1975). “It has no more class than Hostess Twinkie,” Pauline Kael wrote, adding “it, too, may make you gag.” But “Car Wash” is more a critique of those movies. That which was freewheeling and expansive, whether teenage car-culture in “American Graffiti” or boomtown star-making in “Nashville,” is here drastically downsized.
A microcosm of Hollywood, the Dee-Luxe is a stage, and everyone, except perhaps the anxious boss, Mr. B (Sully Boyar), and his gruff ex-con employee, Lonnie (Ivan Dixon), entertains a fantasy or at least wields a shtick. Fittingly, the cast is packed with stand-up comics — Franklyn Ajaye, George Carlin, Irwin Corey and Richard Pryor. The most compelling dreams belong to the playfully romantic T.C. (Ajaye) and the sullen black nationalist Abdullah (Bill Duke), formerly Duane.
T.C.’s childish fantasy of being a black superhero parallels that of the boss’s pot-smoking son (Richard Brestoff), who wears a Mao T-shirt and tells dad’s employees, “Brothers, I’m here to unite with you!” Abdullah’s tortured self-invention is contrasted with that of the self-confident snappy queen Lindy (Antonio Fargas) who, in the movie’s best-known line, tells Abdullah, “I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get.”
Abdullah also mixes it up with and fails to faze the resplendently smiling Daddy Rich (Pryor), the founder of the Church of Divine Economic Spirituality, transported to the Dee-Luxe in a gold limousine accompanied by a glam gospel trio (the Pointer Sisters). Their song is an utterly transparent riff on his con man’s appeal: “You gotta believe in something, why not believe in me?”