Chicago Cab (1998): John Tintori and Mary Cybulski’s Portrait of Lonely Cabbie

SXSW Film Festival, Texas, March 14, 1998–A compassionate portrait of a lonely cabbie is at the center of the serio comedy, Chicago Cab, co-directed by husband and wife team, John Tintori and Mary Cybulski, who have previously made a number of shorts, including the highly acclaimed “Manhattan Dinner.”

Two dozen passengers, played by such terrific actors as John Cusack, Julianna Moore, Laurie Metcalf and Michael Ironside, highlight perceptively the funny, scary and dreary moments in a typical working day of a city cab driver. Nonetheless, pic’s episodic structure, uneven quality of material, and dawdling rhythm should restrict its theatrical prospects, relegating it to the appreciative auds of the regional festival circuit.

Based on Will Kern’s 1992 stage play, Hellcab (which was the film’s former and better title), Chicago Cab aims at showing the life of a cabbie from the inside, centering on the funny, frightening, curious and dangerous episodes that occur on one long wintery day. Meant to provide a witty, darkly comic, and above all humanistic perspective on a popular urban profession, the movie will inevitably be compared to Michael Paradies Shoob’s more technically accomplished Driven, which played some major festivals over the last two years but has not received theatrical distribution.

Adventure begins at 6 a.m. and 20 below zero temperature in Chicago, when a white, young to middle-aged cabbie picks up his first fare. Never knowing what to expect, he’s engaged in an unpredictable line of work whose nature–and degree of satisfaction–ultimately depend on the kinds of passengers who happen to need a ride on a given day. Indeed, in the course of the next 14 hours, the driver encounters one disturbing passenger after another, resulting in an emotional experience that runs the gamut from joy to excitement, from anxiety to real fear for his very own life.

Driving through good and bad neighborhoods, cabbie picks up a manic drug run; makes a hilarious life-and-death race to get a pregnant woman to the delivery room in time; returns gruelling lovers home after a long day of holiday shopping; and so on. Among the highlights of the expectedly fractured narrative is a monologue delivered by Julianne Moore as a rape victim and the cabbie’s deep frustration of being unable to help her, other than the routine verbal consolation, “I’m really sorry.”

The moral weight of the big and little journeys are cumulative; by the end of the shift, they add up to one long and exhausting trip. Though Chicago Cab provides scenes that lead to spiritual cleansing, if not redemption, what’s missing from the narrative to make it truly touching are details about the cabbie’s personal life. Strictly defined vis-a-vis his passengers, there’s no way for the audience to validate his emotional reactions to the various crises against his own background.

Possibly reflecting its low budget and small scale, production values are barely serviceable. Since most of the action occurs within the cab, dwelling on the multi-nuanced interactions between the driver and his disparate aggregate of passengers, an unsettling feeling of claustrophobia works against the enjoyment of a story that, for a first feature, is quite well-directed. Page Hamilton’s original music helps to diversify the mood of a film that increasingly gets monotonous.