A man named Grimm (Bill Murray), dressed as a clown, walks into a bank and holds its staff and customers hostage. New York police chief Ratzinger (Jason Robards) personally negotiates with the criminal, but despite running a by-the-book siege both the robber and his accomplices get away. For Grimm, robbing a bank of a million dollars was easy. Getting out of New York proves to be a much more challenging proposition.
Quick Change is a 1990 comedy directed by Murray and screenwriter Howard Franklin, and based on a novel by Jay Cronley. It is almost certainly the most hands-on production Bill Murray has ever made: he not only stars but co-directs and produces.
The film is a strange sort of anti-love letter to New York. Grimm hates the city, as does Ratzinger. When the escape plan to get out of the city on a flight to Fiji collapses, it sends Grimm, girlfriend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and best friend Loomis (Randy Quaid) on a night-time odyssey through the city’s most sinister and run-down backwaters to make it to the airport before the police close in. There have been many films set in New York, and more often than not they have an innate and oddly rough affection for ‘the city that never sleeps’. Quick Change is the antidote that sentiment: it hates New York. It wants to escape it as soon as it can with all limbs intact.
The story adopts a slightly odd structure, with a very tightly developed and impressive opening bank robbery followed by a meandering series of unlikely vignettes and set pieces. In all honesty the first act is so good that the rest of the film struggles slightly to match it. Once its idiosyncratic rhythms become clear, however, the long night-time journey to the airport takes on its own unique, caustic charm.
It is a film packed with good performances, not just the four leads – all on excellent form – but smaller supporting actors including Tony Shalhoub’s guilt-ridden non-English speaking taxi driver and Philip Bosco’s marvellous authoritarian bus driver. At times it almost feels like sketch comedy, with each odd encounter telling its own small scale story as well as forming part of a broader film.
The glue that holds it all together in Bill Murray. There’s a huge amount of depth to Grimm, marking the first glimmerings of a much more complex and varied range of performances Murray would undertake from the late 1990s. Grimm is still as funny as any of Murray’s earlier comic characters, but there’s a melancholy lurking just below the surface. People become thieves for a lot of reasons; Grimm chooses to rob a bank because being ordinary is slowly killing him.
The film’s airport climax is visibly more mainstream and tidy than the rest of the film, as if the story is forced to return to something more readily digestible for a mainstream audience. It is something of a pity: there’s a clockwork-efficient beginning to the film and a neatly tied-out conclusion at the other end, but it is in the messy, episodic middle that one can find Quick Change‘s heart – and its most peculiarly wonderful moments.