Watching Quick Change For the First Time

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This week, I watched Bill Murray’s Quick Change. It’s a movie I had barely heard of before having it recommended to me, but man — it’s fantastic.

Murray plays Grimm, a guy so fed up with New York City that he devises a brilliant bank robbery followed by a permanent vacation to Fiji with his girlfriend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and best friend Loomis (Randy Quaid). The robbery goes perfectly, but as anyone who has lived here will tell you, just getting to the airport can be a nightmare.

It’s Bill Murray’s first (and so far, only) directing credit, and it really shows that this is a part he loves and a story he wants to tell. There are many roles made for Bill Murray, but this is a part made by him. He’s clearly having a blast playing Grimm, and he, the supporting cast and the world around them all feel of a piece.

Which should be the goal of any well-directed film, I guess. But here it really works. Where many of Murray’s films tend to revolve around his character sticking out on some level — out-of-place big city jerk in Punxsutawney, out-of-place laid-back poltergeist wrangler, out-of-place celebrity in Tokyo — Quick Change is a world in which Bill Murray is a regular guy, and the characters around him see him as they would any hero — ambitious, charismatic, intelligent, decent even. His trademark nonchalance is a given, which allows us to take Murray’s character at face value. And at the risk of reading too far in, it illuminates what I love so much about Bill Murray: his persona isn’t a choice, it’s who he is. And what makes him so enjoyable to watch is how he filters the characters he plays through that persona, not how it compares with the characters around him.

In the hands of an actor like, say, George Clooney (no disrespect), Grimm could easily have been just another in a long line of rogueish ne’er-do-wells, and to be fair to Mr. Clooney, there’s not a lot more to Grimm on paper. But with Murray in the role — a guy who, while charming, isn’t and would never be confused for Danny Ocean, the role deepens and becomes something else. He isn’t a dashing anti-hero. He’s a restless, jaded, beaten-down schmuck who’s taken so much shit from New York City that he decides to take something back. And coming from Murray, who’s sort of perfected the art of the shrugging cynic, it’s pitch-perfect.

The supporting cast is fantastic as well. Randy Quaid is ridiculous as always but put to excellent, sweet and hilarious use as Grimm’s idiot best friend. Geena Davis is super cute, spunky and carries her character with integrity and strength — which, as a girl following her bank-robbing boyfriend around, could easily have been thin and damsel-y. Jason Robards is like a Dick Wolf wet dream as the gravelly, too-old-for-this-shit chief of police, and his B-plot, which feels like it exists in a more serious, traditional New York City of TV police procedurals, is the perfect compliment to the three bumbling outlaws getting lost in corners of the city rarely shown in films. Even the broader characters, like Tony Shaloub’s unintelligble cab driver or the mob goons Grimm stumbles upon (Stanley Tucci among them), are funny, serve the story and never outstay their welcome. And as the three fugitives encounter an escalating number of cameos (Phil Hartman!), character games and obstacles, the sketches never run out of steam or fragment the story, and in fact somehow keep getting funnier — their encounter with an obsessively punctual bus driver near the end is one of the best in the film.

The jokes are solid and present in great numbers, although in line with Murray’s sense of humor, there are fewer punchlines and sight gags than genuinely funny reactions, smart interactions, and hilarious character bits. The laughs here are ones that speak for themselves, and with the great dialogue and casting, everything that’s supposed to hit generally does.

On a personal note, it’s great to see a movie that portrays the frustration of living in New York in such a perfectly heightened way. Surly, unhelpful construction workers (and the woman who wakes up the neighborhood screaming at them to shut up), neighborhoods you swear never existed until you got lost, a lady shaving a guy’s head on the bus for some reason (“Mind your own business!”) — it’s New York from the point of view of someone who’s lived here long enough to know how infuriatingly stupid it can seem sometimes. And, brilliantly, it’s never really a true condemnation of the city — they’re fond jabs, portraying the city’s quirks as much like a love letter as a a portrait of a city that’s too bizarre and huge and hectic to ever really conspire against anyone, even though we’ve all felt like that from time to time.

It really is, as some have said, one of the best performances of Murray’s career. Probably not better than Herman Blume, and maybe not better than Phil Connors. But it’s a fantastic role, and a great movie. It holds up today, without question. The jokes, timing and cast are spot on, so why wouldn’t it? You should have seen this movie by now. Am I allowed to say that?

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.