Originally conceived as a musical, Car Wash deals with the exploits of a close-knit, multiracial group of employees at a Los Angeles car wash. In an episodic fashion, the film is set over a single day on a Friday in the month of July, during which all manner of strange visitors make cameo appearances, including Lorraine Gary as a hysterical wealthy woman from Beverly Hills dealing with a carsick son. Richard Pryor also appears in a cameo as a money-hungry evangelist named 'Daddy Rich' who preaches a pseudo-gospel of prosperity theology; The Pointer Sisters play the parts of his loyal (and singing) entourage, The Wilson Sisters.
One main character is Abdullah, formerly Duane (Bill Duke), a Black Muslim revolutionary. Among his other misadventures in the film, the employees must deal with a man ("Professor" Irwin Corey) who fits the profile of the notorious "pop bottle bomber" being sought that day by the police. It causes employees, customers, and the owner of the car wash, Mr. B (Sully Boyar), to fear for their lives, but the strange man's "bomb" is simply a urine sample he is taking to the hospital.
Mr. B's son Irwin (Richard Brestoff), a left-wing college student who smokes pot in the men's restroom and carries around a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao, insists on spending a day with the "working class" employees, since he considers them "brothers" in the "struggle". As he gets ready to go to work, he sets off motion sensors that give him the first "human car wash", which he takes in good-natured (if pot-induced) stride.
George Carlin appears as a taxi driver searching fruitlessly for a prostitute who stiffed him for a fare. The prostitute, Marleen, has her own hopes shattered as a customer with whom she apparently has fallen in love has given her a false telephone number.
Ex-con Lonnie (Ivan Dixon) is the foreman of the car wash who tries to mentor Abdullah while struggling to raise two young children and fend off his parole officer (Jason Bernard). Abdullah confronts Lindy (Antonio Fargas) and sharply criticizes his cross-dressing, to which Lindy coolly replies, "I'm more man than you'll ever be and more woman than you'll ever get".
T.C. (Franklin Ajaye) is another young employee who is determined to win a radio call-in contest to win tickets for a rock concert and to convince his estranged girlfriend Mona (Tracy Reed), who works as a waitress in a diner across the street, to accompany him.
Floyd and Lloyd are musicians who have an audition for an agent at the end of their shift and spend the entire movie doing their jazz-blues dance moves in front of bewildered customers.
Justin (Leon Pinkney) clashes with his girlfriend, Loretta (Renn Woods), who wants him to go back to college, but he refuses out of the feeling that a black man like him will not get anywhere in the world with any kind of education. Justin's elderly grandfather, Snapper (Clarence Muse), works as the shoe shine man at the car wash and is a follower of Daddy Rich.
Other employees include womanizer Geronimo (Ray Vitte); Scruggs (Jack Kehoe), a cowboy who works as the gas pump operator; Hippo (James Spinks), an overweight employee who clearly hooks up with Marleen the prostitute; Chuco (Pepe Serna), a scheming Latino employee; Goody (Henry Kingi), a Native American employee; Charlie (Arthur French), a scruffy middle-aged employee; Sly (Garrett Morris), a con artist employee and bookie who later gets arrested right at the car wash for a series of unpaid parking tickets; and Earl (Leonard Jackson), who has the attitude of being superior to his colleagues because he does not get wet; he would appear to think that he is the supervisor at the car wash.
Among everything, Mr. B constantly makes passes against the receptionist Marsha (Melanie Mayron) as an escape from his troubled home life. Mr. B is constantly tense and worried throughout the film as he fears about his car wash going out of business due to a competitor a few miles down the street. Lonnie, on the other hand, is full of ideas on how to save the car wash that he cannot get Mr. B or anyone else to listen to, mostly due to Mr. B being a cheapskate.
Later at the end of the movie, Abdullah, after being fired by Mr. B for his unexplained absences, appears in the office with a gun while Lonnie is closing up, intending to rob the business. Lonnie talks him out of it, and the two commiserate at the status society has imposed on them: two proud men forced to work at a meaningless job for meager pay. It is a melancholy ending to the day as they all go their separate ways, knowing that they will be back tomorrow to do it all over again.
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