Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Neglected Gem #67: Quick Change (1990)

Bill Murray in Quick Change

Quick Change takes twenty minutes or so to find its tone. In the opening sequence, Grimm (Bill Murray), dressed in a clown suit, robs a bank, holds the customers and employees hostage, and rigs it so his two accomplices, his girl friend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and his pal Loomis (Randy Quaid), hidden among the hostages, are the first to be released – along with Grimm himself, in a second disguise as a whining nerd. But the combination of Grimm’s actions and Murray’s ironies plays a little uneasily; I didn’t laugh much until these three cleared the bank and were putting one over on the exasperated police chief (Jason Robards). At that point, the movie, which Murray co-directed with the screenwriter, Howard Franklin (adapting a book by Jay Cronley), relaxes into a pleasantly off-kilter New York obstacle-course farce with the structure of an anxiety dream. As the trio tries to make their way to the airport with their loot, everything conspires to block their path. Their plan is to divert the cops, who think Grimm’s still inside the bank, until they can make it out of the country, but while Grimm’s talking on a pay phone to the chief, Loomis accidentally leans on the car horn, blowing their cover. Then they get lost and can’t find anyone to give them directions; when they do, finally, he turns out to be another thief (Jamey Sheridan), who holds them up. Their car is towed and smashed, they land a cabbie who doesn’t speak English, they duck into a warehouse full of gangsters – while Grimm, a burned-out city planner, views each encounter as further proof of the hatefulness of New York. That’s why, he explains, he engineered this robbery – to get them safely beyond the city’s scummy reach.

This comedy’s not a big deal, but it never loses its spirit or its peculiar inner logic; a few scenes are haphazardly set up, some details seem momentarily puzzling, but they all turn out to fit nicely into Franklin’s structure. What appear to be glitches or inconsistencies can probably be racked up to deficiencies of rhythm, though Murray and Franklin build some sequences skillfully. One, set in a market where Grimm’s attempt to get change from a cashier is thwarted by the customer ahead of him, while outside the store everyone the trio wants to avoid – cops, Mafiosi, their conscience-stricken cab driver – gathers in force, is a small gem. It’s the cast, though, that makes Quick Change consistently entertaining: Randy Quaid’s nuttiness (he’s like an amalgam of all Three Stooges), Geena Davis’s looseness and likeability, Jason Robards’ expert double takes (he’s never been funnier), and the contributions of a dozen comics who spin onto the screen and land right at the trio’s scurrying feet. Some of the best are Tony Shalhoub as the cabbie, Philip Bosco as an anal-compulsive bus driver, Stanley Tucci as a Mafia yes-man, Bob Elliott as a pissed-off bank guard, Brian McConnachie as the bank manager, Jack Gilpin as a self-centered hostage, and Kurtwood Smith as an airport loudmouth.

Murray does wonderful routines throughout the picture, but it takes a long time for his performance to pay off. That’s a direct result of the Bill Murray ethic – his refusal to sentimentalize his character, to make him lovable – his badge of honor as a performer. Grimm is so controlled and imaginative and tongue-in-cheek in the face of all these disasters that Phyllis begins to have second thoughts about spending the rest of her life with him; she fell in love with a funny guy who’s turning out, she thinks, to be Jimmy Cagney. Murray is ingenious in this movie: his distanced style keeps us from getting too close to him, and then we find out Phyllis has the same problem. And Grimm’s ability to switch personas and think up new strategies in any situation is the key that turns the caper, just as Alec Guinness’s low-key clerical efficiency is in The Lavender Hill Mob. It’s also the link between actor and role: Grimm is the ultimate improve-troupe comic.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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