Sometimes the reasons a movie becomes underrated are just completely inexplicable. Quick Change is a comedy that was made when Bill Murray was at the peak of his stardom and the film was generally well-received when it came out, but twenty years later, it seems that even Murray’s biggest fans have not even heard of it. Quick Change is notable for being the only directorial effort of Bill Murray’s career as he would share directing credit for this film with Howard Franklin (who would go on to have a less-than-stellar collaboration with Murray and an elephant in Larger Than Life). The movie is based on a novel written by Jay Cronley and was actually filmed once before as a little-known 1985 French-Canadian comedy called Hold-Up that was set in Montreal. Doing a remake must have seemed like a perfect idea since Quick Change gets a lot of its mileage out of setting this story in New York City. In terms of examining the comedic madness of the city and practically turning it into a character of its own, Quick Change is one of the greatest New York movies ever made.
Bill Murray spends the first twenty minutes of the film dressed as a clown. He plays a man named Grimm who walks into a bank in his clown costume, holding a gun and proclaims “This is a robbery!””. Since this is New York City, everyone in the bank just laughs it off and barely pays any attention until Grimm fires a bullet into the air. It’s gradually revealed that Grimm has worked as a very dishevelled bureaucrat in New York his whole life, but has reached his limit with the city and wants to pull of a big score before leaving forever. He plans an ingenious bank robbery, which would probably be the centrepiece of most movies, but in Quick Change, it only makes up the opening act. The police quickly arrive and surround the bank while Grimm takes several hostages and makes the cops think that he is one seriously deranged clown. Grimm’s partners in crime are his girlfriend, Phyllis (Geena Davis) and his loyal, dim-witted best friend Loomis (Randy Quaid), who disguise themselves as hostages in the bank and are released when some of Grimm’s demands are met. Grimm then removes his clown gear and pretends to be one of the released hostages, so that he and his partners can walk right out of the bank with the stolen money stashed underneath their clothes.
Since the cops assume that the clown is still in the bank, the trio is given a huge head start to make the perfect getaway. Once the police chief, Rotzinger (Jason Robards), figures out he has been duped, he becomes determined to catch the robbers before they leave the country. However, while the heist itself turned out to be easy for them, the seemingly simple task of travelling through New York City to get to the airport turns out to be an absolute disaster. This is the brilliant comic set-up of Quick Change and it’s likely that anyone who’s ever lived in New York will recognize many of the nightmarish situations in this film. Everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong, and Grimm constantly tries to rationalize it by saying: “I’m glad this happened! It’s just another reminder of why we’re leaving!”. For starters, the trio gets lost because some construction workers have taken down the road signs and are less-than-helpful at giving directions. It isn’t long before their getaway car is destroyed and they’re forced to flag down a taxi. In one of his earliest roles, Tony Shalhoub plays a cab driver who does not speak or understand one word of English.
The film does make a few surprising attempts at genuine characterization. Phyllis has just become pregnant, but can’t find the right moment to tell Grimm and is worried that his newfound talent at crime will prevent him from ever becoming a stable family man. Jason Robards adds some levity to the film as Chief Rotzinger, a character who has also become disillusioned by New York City, but unlike Grimm, has somehow managed to avoid cracking. However, most of the film is just a series of comedic setpieces about things going wrong, some of which are based on reality, some of which are completely over-the-top. The trio even goes so far as to get themselves mixed up the mafia, which features an amusing early turn by Stanley Tucci as a wiseguy. Yet even the most wacky situations in Quick Change have a certain plausibility to them. The comedic highlight of the film is provided by long-time character actor Philip Bosco, who plays a bus driver with the worst case of O.C.D. you’ve ever seen. He absolutely, stubbornly refuses to bend the rules for anybody and creates one major headache for the heroes when they try to board his bus without exact change. In this brilliantly funny and genuinely suspenseful sequence, Grimm is forced to get exact change from a convenience store within a certain time limit while trying to avoid being seen by people who can identify him.
Given its clever comic premise, I really have no idea why is so underrated and overlooked after all these years. This is one of Bill Murray’s more low-key and restrained comedies, but I’d still say it’s one of his funniest. It works so well because it deals with the mundane frustrations that most people have to deal with every day and you don’t really have to be a native New Yorker to identify with a lot of the situations presented here. I have no idea how many of the directorial choices here are from Bill Murray and how many are from Howard Franklin, but judging by the quality of the film, I would say that Murray does show himself to be a very good comic director and it’s a shame that he has never tried to step behind the camera again. Even though Quick Change is not one of his better-known films, I’d say that it’s a bit of a turning point in Bill Murray’s career as it shows him shying away from the goofy side of his comic persona and leaning more towards subtle human comedy, which would pave the way for his memorable roles in films like Rushmore and Lost in Translation. If you’re a devout Bill Murray fan (and really, who isn’t?), your life isn’t totally complete until you see Quick Change.