Cinematic Pleasures: Quick Change
by j.d. lafrance
New York City. There have been many cinematic odes to the Big Apple, from Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), to the more recent Blue in the Face (1995), but few films have shown comedic contempt for this famous metropolis--Martin Scorsese's double hit of King of Comedy (1983) and After Hours (1985) not being notable exceptions. Adapted from Jay Conley's original novel, Quick Change is a neglected comedy that delights in gleefully thumbing its nose at the city so nice they named it twice.
Early on in the film, Bill Murray's character, Grimm (a self-reflective nod to his character's attitude towards the city) remarks, "God, I hate this town." It is an often repeated line that nicely establishes the scornful tone of the film that begins when Murray, dressed as a clown, robs a bank. After escaping with his cohorts, Phylis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid), it becomes readily apparent that Grimm is tired of New York City and that this well-crafted heist and the subsequent getaway is the big kiss-off to the town he hates the most. However, New York City does not want to relinquish its hold on Murray and his gang so soon, and a series of events conspire to delay their escape. It does not help that they are pursued by a persistent, veteran cop (Jason Robards) who makes it his life's mission to track them down.
The first third of Quick Change--the bank heist--is the best part of the film. It is a brilliant starting point that demonstrates Bill Murray at his smart-ass best. He gleefully fools and infuriates both the cops, the media, and even the hostages with his flippant attitude. His disposition is understandable when juxtaposed with the media circus that occurs outside the bank. Curiousity seekers and the media, smelling a potential story, flock to the scene. Even hot dog vendors race each other for the best vantage point to hock their wares. Everybody is looking to exploit the situation in some fashion and this makes the desire for Murray and company to succeed all the more significant.
However, for all the comic ingenuousness of the opening scene, Quick Change begins to slowly unravel as the trio attempt to leave New York City and encounter more and more absurd situations that gradually escalate to unrealistic proportions. What makes these circumstances nonsensical is the ease that Murray's character is able to conveniently resolve them. The filmmakers should have stuck to showing New York City with its annoying denizens and inhabitants that worked so well in the first third of the picture. It is not that the rest of the film is bad necessarily, it is just that it comes as a letdown after such an excellent beginning.
Murray still retains much of the sarcastic edge that made him a star on Saturday Night Live, but some of the films he did before this one (i.e. The Razor's Edge) suggest that he was looking to do something different, that maybe he had gotten tired of the whole process. He has spoken of the hardships he endured making Scrooged (1988) and his disappointment with how Ghostbusters II (1989) turned out. Murray touched upon a feeling of disenchantment with the filmmaking process in an interview during the release of Quick Change: "There's such a sense of incompleteness about a movie: You feel it as an actor delivering funny lines, and you feel it especially as a director: You tell the joke in June of 1988, and you have to wait two years to get the laugh. It's 1990, and I'm still waiting for the laugh." This feeling is what may have motivated Murray to take more control on Quick Change. In addition to starring, he also co-produced and co-directed (screenwriter Howard Franklin also co-directed) the movie.
Where his contemporaries like Steve Martin and Chevy Chase have softened their edge over time (see Father of the Bride and Cops and Robbersons, respectively), Murray seems to get more and more acerbic with every film. He had not been that good since he did Ghostbusters way back in 1984.
The rest of the cast supports Murray's antics brilliantly. Geena Davis showed with Beetlejuice (1988) that she had the capacity to be a wonderful comedic actor and she proves it once again as Murray's lover and partner in crime who also harbours a secret that threatens to consume her. Randy Quaid is at his hysterical best during the first third of the film, but his dumb guy schtick soon gets tiresome. It seems that the National Lampoon's Vacation films threaten to forever typecast him as a lunkhead. I hope for his sake that this is not the case. This leaves Jason Robards to play the straight man of the picture. He fills these shoes admirably as the detective who, like Murray's character, is tired of New York City and all of its eccentricities. But something, perhaps a sense of duty, keeps him going and determined to catch the robbers if it is the last thing he ever does.
The constant supply of comical cameos keeps the rest of the film watchable. The always entertaining Phil Hartman appears as an anxiety-ridden Yuppie who holds the trio at gunpoint when he mistakenly thinks that they are breaking into his new apartment. The scene is a great battle of talents as he and Murray square off against each other. Tony Shalhoub makes an appearance as a hopelessly incoherent foreign taxi cab driver who delays the robbers from escaping the city. Shalhoub demonstrated once again that his comedic talents were being wasted on the Wings TV show and that his strengths lie in roles like this one and his performance as a jaded Hollywood producer in Barton Fink (1991).
Bill Murray had high hopes for Quick Change. As he said in an interview, "everyone will enjoy this movie. But New Yorkers will enjoy it especially because they know how bad their city really is." Sadly, the film disappeared rather quickly upon its release. Perhaps its cynical view of New York City was too much for mainstream tastes. It is too bad because this is quite an entertaining film that only suffers from a weak ending, but is also filled with exceptional performances--especially that of Murray's who is finally given some room to showcase his comedic talents--something that he was not able to do at that time (although, Scrooged featured a tour-de-force performance by Murray). Watching Quick Change reminds one of his vintage roles in the aforementioned Ghostbusters and Stripes (1981), and shows that he has a legitimate shot at becoming a director. Let's hope his next directorial effort is without a chaperone.