This is one of those movies that’s adapted from a play, and a certain amount of the time it feels like it. Why is it so hard to rewrite and rework a play to make it a movie? Clearly there are certain types of dialogue and such that fit a play and seem awkward in a movie. Or maybe that’s the effect people are sometimes going for when they make a movie out of a play; maybe they aren’t trying to avoid having it seem like a play.
It’s not a glaring problem in Chicago Cab; it’s just that here and there the dialogue feels very “written.”
The movie is of a simple format. We follow a cab driver (Paul Dillon) in Chicago through his whole shift. (It’s an unusually long shift, by the way. It’s 6 AM when the movie starts, and late at night, probably after midnight, when it ends.) About 90% of the film takes place inside the cab, so it’s almost all him interacting with the 30 or so people he picks up over the course of the day.
Knowing what little I do about cab driving and the weird things that can happen, I don’t know that any of his fares are completely far-fetched, though his having all these crazy or otherwise eyebrow-raising people on one shift is. It’s maybe best to think of it as his most attention-drawing fares over the course of a month or six months, artificially condensed into one shift.
He doesn’t have any long fares, nothing to the airport, nothing to or from distant suburbs. The movie clearly wants to keep his passengers coming and going rapidly, and to keep him in a gritty, urban, potentially dangerous setting.
For the first half or so of the movie, I thought it was kind of interesting but it wasn’t drawing me in all that much. I realized later that maybe part of the problem was that there’s something incongruous about the driver himself.
He’s a chain smoker, drives around in an unusually beat up cab, is willing to go to even very shaky neighborhoods, and looks sort of like a skinhead. So I figured he’s a tough guy type.
But his behavior mostly doesn’t fit that. He’s kind of meek, sensitive, and unsure of himself. He has some desire to help people and talk to them, but he’s not smooth about doing so.
Once I had a better feel for him, once I realized he was more Ralph Macchio than James Woods, the movie came together for me better. I started sympathizing with him, seeing him as a decent guy who was helpless in a sense and could be victimized at any time.
This movie is not designed to make you want to be a cab driver. Especially after it gets dark, it feels like he’s constantly vulnerable.
That’s no doubt a related reason I was more into this movie in the second half. Over the course of the film, the mood changes. He has goofy fares and ominous fares throughout, but the proportions shift from primarily goofy in the first half of the movie, to primarily ominous in the second half. Or when not ominous, then dealing with issues of great gravity, like the woman who blurts out that she’s returning home from reporting being raped.
So in the first half, a fair number of the little vignettes are there more for laughs. Some of those are mildly amusing, but they feel more superficial than when he’s in danger later, dealing with irrational drunks and lunatics who may or may not be violent.
It’s a lot heavier for not just the viewer but for him in the second half. Part of the development of the story is the way the intensity of what he’s dealing with wears on him. Should he care about people and get involved; should he detach? Should he respond when he’s being harassed and egged on; should he ignore it? Is the scary guy in the seat behind him going to rob or kill him? He’s near a breakdown toward the end.
So it’s mostly light and quirky for awhile, but gradually it gets deeper, and there are people to wonder about, to think about, to care about, to pity, to be scared of. It definitely grew on me. It was borderline for awhile, but by the end I felt comfortable giving it a thumbs up.