Quick Change finds Bill Murray paddling into the uncharted waters of sincerity. To be fair, Murray had dipped his toe in earlier, at the end of Scrooged and in some parts of Ghostbusters II, and of course in his early dramatic attempt that was greeted with bafflement, The Razor’s Edge. But in Quick Change Murray gives a fresh performance, one that dials down the jaded snark while still cashing laughs. He plays Grimm, a New York city planner turned bank robber. Grimm is sick of the city and wants to get out, taking as much of its money with him as possible. Here, Murray doesn’t seem as though he’s critiquing the movie from its margins. Grimm cares about his goals, cares about getting the hell out of Dodge.
The movie, adapted by Howard Franklin from a Jay Conley novel, and co-directed by Franklin and Murray, begins as a farcical take on Dog Day Afternoon and eventually rolls into a variation on After Hours or The Warriors. After the bank robbery — which attracts the expected volume of police and media buzz — Grimm and his accomplices Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid) fumble around the city, trying to get to JFK Airport. But New York throws all its snarls and roadblocks and crazies in their path; Grimm wants to escape the city, but it doesn’t seem to want to let him go. New York becomes a major character the way it did in the aforementioned three films.
Grimm and Phyllis aren’t just partners in crime; they’re lovers, and Phyllis spends much of the movie figuring out how to tell Grimm she’s going to have his baby. The sadness in Geena Davis’ eyes when Grimm says he feels “complete” — and presumably not welcoming a child — is one of her great moments as an actress, and it colors everything else she does in the role. Likewise, the eager, somewhat doltish Loomis has been friends with Grimm since grade school, but somehow fears his anger, specifically being hit by him. These two have a strange, complex emotional bond to Grimm that might have been unthinkable in an earlier Bill Murray comedy.
Quick Change is smarter, even more literate, than it needs to be — I remember back in 1990 being surprised that the movie’s commercials included a joke about Thor Heyerdahl (maybe part of the reason it wasn’t a big hit). It’s full of great New York faces and personalities: Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Victor Argo, Kurtwood Smith, Philip Bosco, as well as comedians old (Bob Elliott) and then-young (Phil Hartman). There isn’t much filmmaking excitement in it; the two rookie directors (Murray has never directed again) essentially just point a camera at funny people, which turns out to be just enough. There’s enough breathing room in its anecdotal structure for absurdist throwaways like the jousters on bicycles, whom our protagonists — and seemingly the movie itself — pause to watch in wonderment. About the only true aesthetic bummer is Randy Edelman’s cheesy score, interchangeable with that of a dozen generic ’80s comedies.
At the movie’s genially chaotic center is a funnyman (he literally starts off as a clown) who seems to yearn for something different. Groundhog Day was only three years away, and that mystical repetition trip sealed the deal: Bill Murray still wanted to make people laugh, but no longer at the expense of squares, of people who dared to care. In an interview with Roger Ebert promoting the film, Murray said that people were calling the movie “gentle,” which didn’t sit well with him because he considered it “weird and funny,” which it is, but it is also gentle. It’s gentle not only because it has no violence but because almost nobody in it is held up for ridicule; even the chief of police (Jason Robards, and I can’t get over how he went from running around looking robust in this film to being a wheezing husk in Magnolia in just nine years) is allowed to be smart and funny. The two exceptions are a mobster who goes out of his way to be mean to an airport clerk, and a yuppie who insists on being the first hostage to be let free. Grimm uses each man’s aggression against him; it’s comedy aikido.