(SPOILERS) Bill Murray’s heist comedy was a resounding flop on release, one I nevertheless caught in the cinema nearly a year later when it finally limped across to the UK. Why it sank when the subsequent year’s (or the same year’s, if you lived in Britain) What About Bob? swam is unclear, since it came at a time when Murray’s star was commercially at a peak. Warner Bros gets much of the blame for failing on the promotion front but, revisiting the picture, it’s evident Quick Change is a case of a strong script in search of a strong director, and neither of its shots-callers are that.
Murray co-directed with Howard Franklin (who also penned the screenplay, from Jay Cronley’s novel), after Jonathan Demme couldn’t squeeze it into his schedule. Which is a great shame, as the energy Demme had brought to his recent pictures Something Wild and Married to the Mob (like Quick Change, a movie featuring a circus performer with a gun; “Some clown tried to kill me”, relays mob boss Dean Stockwell after Chris Isaak fails to rub him out) is exactly what Quick Change lacks; in this case, it’s the difference between a decent movie and a classic. It would, however, make a good triple bill of movies involving a night askew with After Hours and Into the Night, both exuding an exultant sense of strangeness Quick Change only grasps fitfully; Scorsese’s film is one of his best and most underrated, a perfect black comedy from a director who rarely strays into that genre, while John Landis nails his lead character’s insomniac excursion into the twilight zone with aplomb.
Quick Change, though, is often so ridiculously static in composition and staging, you become aware of just how fully the performers are carrying it, and you credit their work all the more as a result (so too, Randy Edleman’s score is effective when used, but features too infrequently). Apparently Ron Howard turned the movie down and, while I’m not a fan of his work, he’d probably have ensured the finished film had a better sense of flow. This is a picture with natural drive and desperation in its DNA, and it would have taken very little to wind that up to the maximum. Murray’s Grimm stages an audacious bank robbery dressed as a clown, escapes ingeniously with his two accomplices, Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid), only to find his attempts to reach New York’s JFK Airport continually thwarted by the town he’s desperate to leave, with Jason Robard’s dogged Chief Rotzinger bearing down on him.
It’s ideal material to hang lunatic and unlikely interludes on, and imbue its characters with ever-increasing frustration at events’ determined resistance to go according to plan. In this, Murray’s deadpan charisma is perfectly posited, be it his vague attempts to suggest he’s a psycho (“I shot the lights. They were looking at me” he explains of the cameras in the bank, while pretending to be a Nam veteran), responding to Robards (a succession of clown one-liners all land), asking directions from some road workers (“Thank you guys. You could’ve given us help, but you’ve given us so much more”) or opining on the difficulties in getting through airport check-in (“Those damn terrorists have made it tough on us bank robbers”). This is Murray’s delivery at its finest, responding to each new incident with the same rumpled unruffledness.
He’s ably supported by Davis and Quaid. The latter wheels out his idiot best buddy for what was probably the umpteenth time, responsible for honking a horn and setting Rotzinger on their trail (“Sometimes their noses are horns” offers one of Rotzinger’s subordinates by way of explanation for how the sound might have emanated from within the bank). At one point, able to take no more of Tony Shaloub’s uncomprehending Arabic cabbie (“What, have you got shit in your ears?” Quaid exclaims unhingedly) he memorably leaps out of a moving vehicle, running straight into a billboard. Davis has easy chemistry with Murray, even if her role isn’t the most pro-active, and she’s encumbered with a second-rate subplot concerning whether or not to tell Grimm about her pregnancy. She’s at least rewarded with one of the best lines, though (“No, no if that was our plane it would be crashing”).
But it’s the incidental encounters that really sell this, from a surreal bicycle joust with mops as lances (“It’s bad luck just seeing a thing like that” gasps Quaid), to Shaloub’s incomprehensible antics, proving to be a thorn in their side long after they have exited his cab, to their encounter with the mafia (“This ain’t my dick in your back” exclaims Stanley Tucci’s gun wielding gangster; “That’s a relief” responds Murray) to their bus ride from hell, courtesy of Philip Bosco’s anal driver demanding exact change, unable to give an exact estimate of the walk between the bus stop and airport before offering a precise “21 minutes”. The bus sequence is particularly sublime, with Grimm desperately waiting in a very slow queue in a shop nearby for his exact change, responding to the local odours (“What’s that smell?” asks Phyllis; “Used wine” replies Grimm) and faced with a man with a guitar strapped to his back who repeatedly fails to make adjustments for the size of the door.
At the airport, Woody Allen regular Ira Wheeler offers priceless horror at whatever Murray and Quaid are up to behind a men’s room cubicle door (it’s an old set up, but it’s all in the delivery) and Kurtwood Smith cameos with a veneer of unrepentant obnoxiousness as the mafia guy in charge. Howard reportedly didn’t take the movie because there was no one to root for, missing that you always root for Bill Murray. Added to which, Phyllis’ pregnancy lends the picture an excuse for this trio not to face the long arm of the law, after which it is emphasised that Smith’s guy is a real villain who makes more in a day than Grimm could make off with in a week; I’m not sure the picture really needs to foist a moral hierarchy on us, but that’s in the nature of Hollywood studio think. If the criminals are going to get away with it, they have to be thoroughly decent criminals really.
Quick Change was previously adapted five years earlier, with the unlikely combination of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Kim Cattrall (set in Montreal), and I’d be surprised if it isn’t adapted again at some point. There’s little fault in the script or performers, but a director able to embrace its frenetic splendour could have engineered an unalloyed classic.