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Bill Murray can make us laugh by doing nothing. Seriously. All he needs to is stand perfectly still and just be Bill Murray. “Just be Bill Murray” is the key. Few people say as much as he does without speaking a word. His natural low-shouldered, okay-so-this-is-happening demeanor have made for some of the more memorable characters in cinema history, from Ghostbuster‘s Dr. Venkman to Lost in Translation‘s Bob Harris. And his role in 1990’s Quick Change is one of his best.
In 1990, right after Ghostbusters II failed to win over fans and critics, and a few years before he would recapture the glory days and kickstart a second coming with Groundhog Day, he starred in a little seen, but critically favored film about a trio of bank robbers who concoct a brilliant scheme to steal a lot of money from a bank but fail to foresee the problems of getting from the bank to their flight. New York City, being New York City, won’t let them leave.
Murray plays Grimm, a not-so-subtle but aptly named man who enters a mid-town Manhattan bank. He’s dressed in full clown regalia, including balloons, a red nose and a vest full of explosives. Okay, so the last part isn’t so clowny. Of course, no one takes him seriously when he announces his intentions until he pulls a gun. Now, you think you’ve seen all the possible bank heist schemes there were in the hundreds of movies where that’s the plot. But you haven’t. Grimm’s plan is really very ingenious and actually hinges on having the police surround the bank and drawing a crowd in a Dog Day Afternoon sort of way. I won’t spoil what that plan is, but it’s very effective, and more importantly, funny.
Suffice to say, he and his accomplices, Loomis (Randy Quaid), a dimwitted, insecure guy who’s followed Grimm around since the first grade, and Phyllis (Geena Davis), Grimm’s girlfriend who is looking to go to the next level in their relationship, are about to have a very bad day. Once they are out of the bank, all they need to do is get from Manhattan to the airport and fly out of the country. What would seem like the hardest part, robbing the bank, goes off without a hitch and has them encouraged for the easy part, a drive to the terminal. But it’s not to be for if anything can happen to keep them from making it to the plane, it does. From incorrect construction signs to emotional taxi drivers, to fire engines and flower-selling street gypsies, to bare-chested men in a to-the-death jousting fight on kid’s bike with mop handles, the road to freedom is one littered with setbacks and the proper bus fare.
Directed by Howard Franklin and Murray, who collaborated on this and another Murray movie that is under-appreciated, Larger Than Life (1996), Quick Change is an absurd comedy that is remarkably grounded. Set and filmed in New York, it is of course much more than what it portends to be. Less a bank robbery movie than a riveting character study, we watch with wonder as Grimm cooly and calmly faces a myriad of seemingly unsolvable situations one after the other. From getting the correct change for a bus (Grimm ends up packing groceries at a Korean market) to walking in on the mob with a truck full of stolen electronics, there seems nothing that won’t get in there way. And while the first act with the bank robbery is really fun to watch, it is these smaller moments throughout the last two acts that make this sharply written (by Franklin from Jay Cronley‘s book) movie snap, crackle and pop.
While Murray is gloriously funny, he is surrounded by others that hit high marks as well. Davis and Quaid are very good at the unbelieving pair who are basically us, viewing with utter disbelief at how well Grimm manages to keep moving forward, even when he admits he has no idea what he’s doing. So too is the invaluable Jason Robards, playing Chief Walt Rotzinger, a determined cop who slowly figures things out, wisely never seen as inept, a mistake that many movies would have made. The bumbling doofus police figure is a standard in this genre, but here, Rotzinger is smart, intrepid, and cunning. It lends the story a lot of credibility. But that extends to other characters as well. Tony Shalhoub plays the taxi driver who can’t understand English. That might seem cliché, but Shalhoub and the film don’t paint him in a corner with what would seem like one joke. He has some weight to offer the plot. Same goes for the scene-stealing Philip Bosco, a bus driver that is achingly funny. There’s a very young Stanley Tucci playing a mob crony who shows off why he’s one of the best character actors working in the business today. These and others populate the peripheral and propel it forward with great speed and humor. It’s rare to have so many links in the chain working as well as this.
Quick Change is a smart (how many comedies can make a Thor Heyerdahl reference work?), inventive comedy that might have worked and performed better with a more proven director. To date, this was Murray’s only time behind the camera, and while he and Franklin got it mostly right, it loses a little steam as we barrel to the finale. Of course, this isn’t a movie about action, though it has some good bits of that, it’s more about the relationships and the writing and the humor drawn from experiences we can all relate to. And that’s what makes it so endearing. Very few of us, fortunately, are bank robbers, but almost all of us face the cumbersome routine of getting from place to place and dealing with the unexpected that get in our way.
Directors: Howard Franklin, Bill Murray
Writers: Jay Cronley (book), Howard Franklin (screenplay)
Stars: Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Randy Quaid, Jason Rodards, Stanley Tucci, Philip Bosco