Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Crying on the inside, laughing everywhere else

By Edward Copeland
As "L-O-V-E" by Nat King Cole croons smoothly over the soundtrack, the camera pans slowly over the faces of the usual assortment of New York subway commuters until it lands on one man who sticks out: He's in full clown outfit and bearing balloons, but his facial expression certainly doesn't radiate joy. That's because beneath the makeup is Grimm (Bill Murray), an employee of the department of city planning who is about to carry out his plan to escape the city he's come to loathe in Quick Change, a woefully underrated film which turns 20 today and marks the only time Murray sat in the director's chair, though he shared the job with Howard Franklin, who adapted the film from Jay Cronley's novel.

Grimm's escape plan, which also involves his girlfriend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and dimwitted lifelong friend Loomis (Randy Quaid), is to rob a bank to finance their exit from the city they've come to despise. Of course, I think NYC is the greatest city in the world and would do anything to live there, yet that doesn't prevent me from loving this comedy which takes aspects of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and Martin Scorsese's After Hours, tosses them into a blender and hits puree. There also are nods to other great bank heist films, even some that had yet to be made such as Spike Lee's Inside Man. Grimm's opinion of the city is not reassured as he begins the robbery. The guard (Bob Elliott of the great comedy team Bob & Ray and father of Chris) believes he's serious when he flashes the gun and shows the dynamite strapped to his chest, prompting the guard to ask Grimm what kind of clown he is. "A crying on the inside kind, I guess," Grimm replies, but the customers and other employees need more convincing other than shouts of "This is a robbery" so Grimm finally has to fire a shot in the air.

Soon, once Grimm has secured all the hostages in the bank vault he makes phone contact with his newly minted nemesis, Rotzinger (Jason Robards), the heralded NY police chief who is on the edge of retirement. One of the thing that raises Quick Change above most bank heist films is that both the criminal and the cop are sympathetic characters and the viewer's loyalties are torn because you really don't want to see either foiled or embarrassed. Rotzinger is not a buffoon: He's sharp and a worthy adversary. While Murray's sparring with Robards is one of smart, sardonic politeness, Robards parries back well with the hard-bitten intelligence of a man who has seen it all and is doing his best to be a step ahead of Murray at every step of his plot. The two actors raise the level of Quick Change above that of a mere comedy.

When the criminal trio escape the confines of the bank (using new disguises and acting as if they are the first hostages released), the movie doesn't just retain its comic edge, it ups the suspense quotient and develops a bit of a surreal quality, thanks to the many fine actors in small character parts to just odd moments as when Grimm, Phyllis and Loomis, lost and seeking directions to the airports, stumble upon a strange bicycle jousting ritual. That is just one of the weird and inspired touches, not one of the obstacles that appear in their path which include construction that remove road signs and road workers who have no idea which way the directions were supposed to point; several instances of having guns pulled on them, some by crooks, some by new apartment dwellers; anal retentive bus drivers; cab drivers speaking unidentifiable languages; accidental run-ins with the mob; and just general chaos, none of which is helped by Loomis (Quaid), who may be Grimm's best friends but leaves a lot to be desired in the brains department. As Rotzinger confides to his lieutenant, when he's frustrated that his stellar career could end on such a sour note if these bank robbers get away with it, "Our only hope is that they are mired down in the same shit that you and I have to wade in every day."

With co-directors, especially when both Murray and Franklin in this case are first-timers, it's difficult to know who gets the credit to for a film's magic (it's not as easy to guess as when Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins shared directing duties on West Side Story), but Quick Change has it, kinetic energy that begins as soon as Grimm the clown steps off the subway, onto the Manhattan street and into the bank and that energy doesn't let up until the film ends 90 minutes later. One of the movie's aspects that keeps it speeding along so well is its wonderfully infectious score by Randy Edelman. One other thing that Quick Change has that's reminiscent of After Hours is a supporting cast of top-notch actors in even the smallest of roles. Included in the roll call: the aforementioned Bob Elliott, Victor Argo, Phil Hartman, Jamey Sheridan, Kurtwood Smith, Stanley Tucci and my two personal favorites here, Philip Bosco as the bus driver with the obsession with exact change and all other regulations and Tony Shalhoub as the cab driver who seemingly can only say one thing which, unfortunately, no one can translate since they can't even identify his language. Murray is as great as always and Davis gets quite a few good moments, especially as her own frustrations build, though at times Quaid overplays Loomis' stupidity. That aside, ever since I first saw Quick Change 20 years ago, it's held a warm place in my heart and re-watching it for the first time in many years did nothing to diminish that feeling. Franklin went on to direct the so-so Joe Pesci vehicle The Public Eye in 1992 and Murray again in 1996's Larger Than Life, which I've never seen, but Bill Murray has never stepped behind the camera again and since Quick Change turned out so well, I really wonder why.

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Love this film and I wish Murray would try his hand at directing again. But I guess its commercial and critical indifference soured him on the experience. I will say that the first third of the film is brilliant but as the bizarro encounters beging to pile up I feel that the film tends to run out of steam a little bit towards the end. Still, a fantastic, wildly entertaining film and you are right to point out the stellar supporting cast. So many awesome character actors populate this film.
I'm with J.D. on this film, definitely. Ed, I think you nailed it by saying it's a puree of DOG DAY AFTERNOON, AFTER HOURS, and INSIDE MAN. I love the cast in this comedy, too. Fine review. Thanks for this.
Public Eye is devastating. I love the score. Might help to be obsessed with Author Fellig.
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