Playing by the rules
Working at Footlocker just isn’t cutting it for Sean (Dr. Dre). Maybe he has other aspirations, maybe not. But there’s no doubt about the limits of Footlocker: The opening black-and-white still photo montage that opens D.J. Pooh’s The Wash shows in painful detail the drudgery of working chain retail: stacking boxes, catering to snitty customers and an overbearing manager. By the time the credits are over, Sean has moved on.
The first step is to go home, to the apartment he shares with Dee Loc (Snoop Dogg). They spend a pleasant evening with a couple of ladies, after a brief run-in with a fellow holding a gun to Sean’s head and a brief interruption by the LAPD, who, after waving away the smoke from their faces, warn Dee and Sean to turn down their very loud music. (They turn it up, point being, po-po are useless.) Next morning, Dee sends Sean down to the car wash where he works (and sells weed on the side). Sean applies for the assistant manager’s position, and Mr. Washington (George Wallace) is so impressed with his quiet demeanor and apparent seriousness, that he makes Sean Dee’s boss. Tensions arise.
Much like director D.J. Pooh’s 1995 breakout feature, Friday, The Wash is short on plot, long on silliness. While the film obviously nods to Michael Schultz and Joel Schumacher’s 1976 power-to-the-people classic, Car Wash, it lacks that film’s class-analytical bite. In fact, The Wash appears not to have much at all on its mind. You get the sense that Dre and Snoop, longtime collaborators, got some of their friends together and had a really good time on the set, making shit up as they went along. This crew includes Pooh veteran Tiny Lister as Dee’s amiable co-worker; Bruce Bruce as a donut-eating toy cop; Shaquille O’Neal, Ludacris, and Xzibit as angry customers; and Dre protégé Eminem as Chris, recently fired car-washer who spends most of the movie threatening Washington by phone, then hooting maniacally, all alone in his red-themed bedroom. This doesn’t look like much of a stretch for the cartoonishly psycho Slim Shady, but perhaps it’s good practice for playing himself in the upcoming movie based on his life.
Whatever this mad dog Chris has going on, it’s not much connected to the rest of the film anyway. Then again, nothing in the film is much connected to anything else in it (not unlike the scene-by-scene organization of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Dee and Sean have to work out their beef, and also try to make time with girls in tight tops, and meanwhile: Pauly Shore pops up in the trunk of a Mafioso’s car, about to be murdered for sleeping with someone’s sister, and okay, no one cares. Sean comes up with a surefire way to draw customers, girls in bikinis wiping down cars in the front lot. Eye-rolling cashier Antoinette (Angell Conwell) watches some 106th & Park on the tv. Mr. Washington is kidnapped by a couple of homeboys (Shawn Fonteno and Pooh—or, as the New York Times refers to him, Mr. Pooh), who get way too mad when the self-inflated boss-man chases them off his property.
Given that the film is opening the same week as Harry Potter, it’s pretty much guaranteed to disappear quickly from theaters; it will also likely do fine on video/DVD, owing to its hip-hop star-sightings factor, and its Friday-like affection for good-natured smoke jokes. And if The Wash lacks Friday‘s audacity and freshness (not to mention Chris Tucker), it does offer a few funny moments, owing to its stars’ palpable low-key chemistry: Snoop makes an excellent Mean Face, snarling as he guns his fantastically acrobatic low-rider’s engine, and Dre affects a weirdly believable haplessness. I’m not sure what to make of the smelly toilet jokes (brought on by Sean’s inexplicable downing of a cheese steak burrito), except that they demonstrate Dre’s usual ability to make fun of himself (for a sharper poke, see Eminem’s “Guilty Conscience”).
The broader question that, if not exactly raised by The Wash, might be extracted from it, has to do with the means by which young black male artists find their way into the film business. While the music industry is open enough to black male performers who strike pseudo-threatening, thugging poses (and has adjusted its marketing strategies accordingly, so the executives are making tons of money off acts with increasingly short half-lives), and television has long been comfortable with raunchy comedians (at least on the non-major networks), the movie industry has a particular structure in place, and there’s no breaking in if you don’t play by the rules. And even if you do play by the rules, if you’re a young black male actor, you’re more often than not relegated to familiar “types,” no matter your range or talent: see Mekhi Phifer, Omar Epps, the aforementioned Chris Tucker, even Chris Rock, whose increasingly open conservatism is earning him increasing access to wherever it is he wants to be.
Self-mocking comedy has always been the quickest way for outsiders to get inside, of course. Dre and Snoop’s current venture, like the upcoming How High, featuring another famous pair of hip-hop pals, Redman and Method Man, both mocks and confirms the public impression of their relationship (in this case, diehard loyalty, good fun, laid-back rivalry), while leaving invisible the obvious hard work and intellectual activity that goes into their art (in addition to the albums and the clothing lines, they have put together a studio-distributed movie, not an easy thing to do). There are surely reasons for this—hard work is an establishment value best repudiated, the non-threatening black man gets paid—and given current cultural circumstances, rocking boats is no way to get over, if that’s what you’re interested in doing.
But still. Even if it’s not surprising, it’s at least a little disappointing that this film, released almost 25 years after Car Wash, is revisiting the earlier film’s concerns (unemployment and minimum wage labor, neighborhood violence, racism, booty-chasing) without much changed in terms of what’s at stake, who cares, and how to cope. Underclass and working class existence is indeed much the same as it was so many years ago. And while such existence conveys upon a hip-hop artist immediate cred, recalling that life fondly (or raucously) still resonates more easily as nostalgia more than social or political critique. It’s good to have fun, especially when you can afford it.