A Bill Murray comedy that didn't earn all the respect it deserved when it first came out, Quick Change is still near the top of the comedian's film work. It's an upside down caper film working from the premise that a semi-amateur bank robbery is a huge success -- until it comes time for the heisters to make their escape from New York. Just crossing town to get to the airport becomes an absurd exercise in frustration, like The Out-of-Towners, only funny.
To bring back pleasant memories, casual filmgoers need only be reminded that Quick Change is the one where Bill Murray robs a bank dressed as a clown. The film's most oft-repeated line comes in an exchange between Murray's Grimm, in full clown makeup and costume, and Bob Elliott's pea-brained bank guard:
Grimm, thinking about it: "Oh, the crying on the inside kind, I guess."
Murray and his writer and co-director Howard Franklin assemble their comedy from excellent components: A fresh plot that makes enough sense to be taken reasonably seriously, some excellent skit humor and characters that pay off well. Fun threesome Murray, Quaid and Davis are hit by a staggering succession of New York mishaps, all of which, Grimm claims, are the reason he's gone to the extreme of robbing a bank. After being victimized by militantly rude city workers (who've removed all the direction signs pointing the way to the airport), Grim is able to keep his cool only because he knows he's getting out of town, and his tormenters have to stay in the city.
According to reports, Murray and Franklin lost the services of Jonathan Demme and decided to direct Quick Change themselves. Their use of the camera, blocking, etc. are fine, but there are some pacing and delivery issues. Many bits are right on the mark, such as "yuppie hostage" Jack Gilpin's failed attempt to bribe Grimm with an expensive watch, or Stuart Rudin's drug-addled bus passenger, the one who can't board because his guitar keeps getting in the way. And plenty of material is just excellent. Tony Shalhoub invents a wonderful English-challenged cab driver ("Honk Honk . bluftoni!"), and Philip Bosco makes his rule-obsessed bus driver into a classic character. Only occasionally does a scene seem forced or weak, as with Phil Hartman and Kathryn Grody's crime-obsessed tenants, who seem to have wandered in from a bad Saturday Night Live skit. The basic NYC quicksand gags work: Grimm & co, are mugged and their car is destroyed by firemen trying to access a hydrant. In their rush to avoid the police they duck into a warehouse brimming with mafia wise guys, including Stanley Tucci and Victor Argo. Forced into desolate neighborhoods, the trio witness a bizzare jousting tournament on bicycles, with combatants brandishing mop handles. On a dark and empty industrial street, they're serenaded by the cries of a Latin flower vendor: "Flores! Flores para los muertos!"
A few of Murray and Davis' dialogue scenes also seem a bit rushed or over-rehearsed, but in general the chemistry works. Davis' Phyllis is understandably excited, and can't make her self break the news to Grimm that she's pregnant. The panicky Loomis injures himself in a wild leap from a moving car. When Phyllis comforts his aching head, he becomes sort of a grown-up substitute baby.
The cop-chase side of the movie is given almost equal time, but is the shaky section. Luckily, it's grounded by Jason Robards' no-nonsense police chief just short of turning into Car 54, Where Are You?. Robards' Rotzinger is having an equally bad time with the city, which he wisely hopes is giving the robbers the same grief he's experiencing -- Quick Change was made before New York City's tourist-friendly image campaigns that cleaned up Times Square. Robards' dopey cops and mostly ineffectual advisors give him little aid, and he has to crack the case practically single-handed. We're rooting for Rotzinger all the way, which puts substantial pressure on the story -- we don't want Murray to escape, yet we do. As it turns out, the chase after the bank robbers sets Rotzinger onto the trail of a much bigger public enemy, a mobster named Lombino (Kurtwood Smith). Quick Change cleverly manages a satisfactory comedy conclusion for everyone.
Bill Murray gives his deadpan smart-ass persona a real workout in this picture, and adds a touch of sincerity that helps out when it comes time to deciding whether we want him to escape or be captured. Geena Davis blurts out the best lines ("Oh, why don't you just take us straight to Sing Sing?") and makes us more concerned for the silly trio of robbers than they by rights deserve. Randy Quaid is the good-hearted goofball who fools the cops with his moron act (act?) and, at the slightest hint of bad news, is prone to collapsing in the street to wail out his grief.
Jason Robards' top cop might have been more effective if his part of the story had been played in deadpan seriousness, like Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3; perhaps Murray's antics would have been funnier if we were quietly dreading a violent conclusion that the film could reverse at the last minute. But things are funny enough as they are, and Quick Change is a big success.
Warners' DVD of Quick Change gives the comedy a big boost with a handsome enhanced transfer that brings out the bright colors of Manhattan in the Springtime, when bank robbers are in bloom. The punchy soundtrack makes the most of Randy Edelman and Howard Shore's bouncy music track. A trailer is the only extra, which is a shame; we film fans want to hear how these comedies come about. How does one write a joke and expect it to still be funny, five months and 50 readings later?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Quick Change rates: