Security guard: “What the hell kind of clown are you?”
Bill Murray: “The crying on the inside kind, I guess.”
That’s Bill Murray in a nutshell. Murray was the sad clown long before Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Jim Jarmusch explicitly drew out the melancholy that always simmered just below his hilariously sardonic persona. Even in vehicles as purely frivolous as Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters, Murray never falls back on excessive wackiness to push a joke across; he’s more the type to sit back on the sidelines, offering commentary on the foolishness that comes into his field of vision. Though there’s an occasional break in the clouds—his joy at the end of Groundhog Day (still his best movie) is as close to contentment as he’s ever gotten onscreen—Murray’s comedy derives from a state of eternal disappointment, and his soulfulness comes from the same place, too. After all, humor is the ultimate defense mechanism: How else to beat back life’s never-ending cavalcade of letdowns and banalities?
The underrated 1990 comedy Quick Change, which Murray co-directed with writer-director Howard Franklin, doesn’t get any better than its first 30 minutes, when Murray the sad clown sets about robbing a bank with oversized shoes, a fistful of balloons, and enough dynamite under his flapping dickey to take out an entire New York City block. As criminals go, Murray’s Grimm isn’t greedy, sadistic, or particularly disposed to professional thievery; he just wants to thumb his nose at the city he hates and collect enough money to leave, in that order. Eight years later, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore would transform Murray into the saucer-eyed Eeyore of the indie set, but his mopey exasperation is the engine that keeps Quick Change humming along as both an offbeat heist movie and a poison-pen letter to New York at its most aggravating.
In the Murray pantheon, Quick Change doesn’t tend to rank terribly high among fans—and frankly, it doesn’t necessarily deserve to, in spite of its many highlights—but in the context of his career, it’s an essential bridge between his early and late periods, a broad entertainment with a strong thread of world-weary cynicism. It’s like a mainstream version of Martin Scorsese’s superior 1985 black comedy After Hours, trapping Grimm and his criminal cohorts in an urban labyrinth that conspires to frustrate them in ways both petty and cruel. Murray carries the load a bit more lightly than he would in later efforts, but his bone-deep despair intermittently makes itself known—in the subway, where his clown masters the same dead-eyed, thousand-yard stare as the other passengers; in the bank vault, where seething class resentment wins him a $12,000 watch for the low, low price of $300; and in the open air, where virtually every New Yorker he encounters throws an obstacle in his way.
The opening scenes find Grimm clomping through public transit en route to the bank, and he barely gets his giant shoe in the door before closing time. With apologies to Woody Allen’s Take The Money And Run, Grimm’s biggest problem upfront is simply convincing everyone that he’s serious: Two cries of “This is a robbery!” are barely enough to get the administrators and tellers to raise their heads, let alone set to work giving the clown what he wants. And even after he fires a few warning shots, the customers complain that their money is unprotected and they could use a receipt. In fact, the only guy panicking is Loomis (Randy Quaid), which should be the first indication to everyone present that he’s in cahoots with the robber. Otherwise, he’d act just as apathetic and mildly put-out as the rest of them.
As heist scenarios go, Grimm’s plot to get out of the bank with a million bucks is pretty standard: With each demand the authorities meet—from simple requests like a transport bus to harder gets, like a monster truck—he agrees to release one hostage. And the first three hostages to go are Loomis, Geena Davis’ Phyllis, and Grimm himself, all filing out in ridiculous-looking disguises that are nonetheless enough to get them by the troglodytes of the NYPD. Grimm’s nemesis, a police chief played by the great Jason Robards, acquiesces to his demands much like the grim-faced authorities in the original 1974 The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, with salty language and a distinct lack of enthusiasm. That’s one thing Grimm and the police chief have in common: They just want to get through a typical headache of a day in the Big Apple.
Though Quaid and Davis are capable tagalongs, most of the laughs in Quick Change are owed to Murray’s wisecracks and stupefied reaction shots, with assists by a cast loaded with veteran character actors like Robards, Stanley Tucci, Victor Argo, Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, Jamey Sheridan, and other familiar faces. As with Scorsese’s After Hours, the city and its half-crazed inhabitants make the simplest task—like getting from one location to another over a stretch of several hours—a Kafka-esque journey through a dysfunctional hellpit. (I’d bet both movies were made in part by native New Yorkers trying to ward off tourists. Scorsese, for one, could never live in any other city.) Here’s a typical exchange, where Grimm and company ask construction workers for directions to the BQE:
“Will you be putting up a new sign?” “Not today. Today’s just taking shit down.” Yep, that’s pretty much what a doesn’t-give-a-shit construction worker might say. And so it goes for the wealth of other colorful stereotypes Quick Change trots out: The bus driver who won’t accept any fare that isn’t exact change (shades of After Hours again); the cabbie who asks repeatedly, in his native tongue, where his passengers want to go; a pack of easily duped Italian gangsters; a preppie Ted Bundy type who looks too conspicuously clean-cut to be anything other than a serial murderer. Nearly everyone they encounter has a gun—and short of that, an attitude—and there’s open hostility and even death at every turn, from a surreal showdown between two men on bikes jousting with dustpans to the lonely old woman crying, “Flores! Flores para los muertos!”
Quick Change is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect film; a subplot involving an obvious “secret” that Phyllis is keeping from Grimm introduces a measure of sentiment to a comedy that could stand to be a lot darker. Though Grimm, Loomis, and Phyllis’ misadventures in New York’s less hospitable neighborhoods lead to many big laughs—some off-the-wall surreal, and others more in keeping with the milder standards of studio comedies—the film never tops the image of Murray in his clown costume, crying on the inside while staging a bank robbery as if it were an elaborate, irreverent practical joke. That’s the image we have of Murray now, the reluctant jester who has stopped even pretending to be a populist goofball and has consequently brought himself greater critical appreciation. The only difference: The Murray of today wouldn’t be that interested in leaving the New York of Quick Change. He fits right in.
Next week: I [Heart] Huckabees
July 2: Darkman
July 9: Lost Highway
July 16: [Vacation.]