Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Unsung!: Quick Change

Like Bowfinger, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, Quick Change is one of the great, undiscovered comedies of the 1990’s. The two films stand nicely as “bookends” for the decade.

Quick Change (1990)

I always thought that Quick Change gets overlooked because of the high esteem audiences and critics have for Bill Murray’s later film Groundhog Day. For the love of God, Groundhog Day has even been nominated to Sight and Sound’s vaunted only-once-every-decade Ten Best List! In no way am I trying to take anything away from Groundhog Day -- it is a masterpiece. But so is Quick Change. I am reminded of a comment Frank Capra made in his autobiography about his 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: “I learned one thing that year. Don’t make the best film of your career the year someone else makes Gone With The Wind.”

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Three New Yorkers -- Grimm (Bill Murray), Phyllis (Geena Davis), and Loomis (Randy Quaid) -- plan a bank robbery so they can steal enough money to leave New York forever. While the intricate robbery goes off without a hitch, getting from the bank to the airport and escape proves to be a much more complicated endeavor.
There is a lot to like in Quick Change. The film is Bill Murray’s lone attempt at film directing (he co-directed the film with screenwriter Howard Franklin) and he acquits himself admirably. The directing style here is lean and simple and never gets in the way of the jokes -- and there are a lot of great jokes. The film’s score by Randy Edelman is one of my favorite comedy scores; it ranks right up there with Elmer Bernstein’s score for National Lampoon’s Animal House and Henry Mancini’s score for The Pink Panther.

Quick Change also features an abundance of small character parts filled admirably by a rogue’s gallery of great character actors: Bob Eliot, Jack Gilpin (the insufferable Yuppie snob in every film made in the 1990’s), Jamey Sheridan, Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci, Philip Bosco, Kurtwood Smith, and Tony Shalhoub. Shalhoub is particularly hilarious as a cabdriver who speaks no English; the police investigation in the film would come to a triumphant end if anyone could just figure out that “bluuftuni” is Shalhoub’s word for “city bus.”

Something struck me the last time I saw Quick Change. Because the film involves our comic trio’s consistently thwarted attempts to simply get to the airport, a viewer might reasonably assume that the film fits into the “comedy of frustration” subgenre: films where mistaken identities and misunderstandings lead to mounting comic hijinks and supposed hilarity. A good example of the comedy of frustration is Meet the Parents. I used to really admire Meet the Parents until Patrick Bromley (of F This Movie! fame!) showed me the error of my ways. He said he had no patience for a movie where the plot would end the minute a character uttered a single line -- in Meet the Parents, that line would be “That’s not my suitcase, the marijuana belongs to your son, and I am in love with your daughter.” Roger Ebert calls these “idiot plots,” aka “any plot that would be instantly resolved if all the characters were not idiots.”

Quick Change is NOT that. In fact, Quick Change follows the opposite trope. Although our protagonists face mounting pitfalls, the comedy does not derive from their frustration and powerlessness, but from the increasingly creative ways they thwart their very real obstacles. Indeed, a major plot point in the film involves Phyllis’ dawning realization that boyfriend Grimm is a kind of scary criminal genius; no matter the odds, he triumphs.

SO LET US REVIEW, CLASS: on the one hand we have mounting misunderstandings leading to confusion and “movie world” idiocy (Meet the Parents). On the other hand we have sympathetic protagonists overcoming mounting odds in a clever and satisfying way (Quick Change). This reminds me of the difference between hack comedians, who strap on roller skates only to bumble and fall around like jackasses, and the sublime Charlie Chaplin, who puts on skates and becomes a ballet dancer. Chaplin’s choice here is much funnier… and much harder. It is unexpected, and surprise is surely one of the hallmarks of successful comedy.

Other things to love about Quick Change: the often droll and understated dialogue; Geena Davis, who is ravishingly beautiful in this movie; the seeming non-sequiter sequence where two men on bicycles and homemade armor stage an impromptu medieval joust on a deserted city street; and the scary scene outside the airport at night where a lone woman stands on an empty street corner and shrieks, “Flores… flores de los muertos! LOS MUERTOS!”

Quick Change is available on DVD and also to buy or rent from Apple’s Itunes Store or Amazon Instant Video!


  1. Quick Change is based on a very funny novel by one of my favorite authors Jay Cronley...the man only wrote 4 books in his life...Quick Change, Funny Farm...yes THAT Funny Farm (with Chevy Chase) and Let it Ride (with Richard Dreyfuss) and Cheap Shot. In fact Quick Change was made earlier in Canada as Hold Up (1985) with jean Paul Belmondo as Grimm. I think that Let It Ride is the superior movie, because it has a magical realism aspect to it..not Groundhog Day but up there with it. I haven't seen the French adaptation of Cheap Shot..but it doesn't smell like it's in the same venue as the earlier movies..the book isn't, it wasn't even picked up by a major publisher..i suspect the author was written OUT after three great books in a such a short time.

  2. JB, I just fell in lurve with you all over again. I love Quick Change (and J Godsey is right about Jay Cronley, Funny Farm in particular is a very funny book). Very fun movie, with a ton of standout character actors delivering great work. Nobody does this to Mrs. Russ Crane!

  3. My favorite comedy of all time. I realized recently that this movie has affected my worldview so much. I've never been to New York, but I imagine it would be this. I see city works as potentially "fur-bearing" and I spent my teenage years answering the phone "Mom?!" It really is the simple lines, like the old-man-security-guard saying "how hot does this baby burn?" and Bill Murray "appreciating" his watch "more and more each day." Such masterful (yet subtle) word play make the screaming of Randy Quaid "It's RRRED!!" just as brilliant. I just found out there's a French version from 1985 called "Hold up"! Who knew?! I am crying on the inside.