A clown walks into a bank.
You could have a whole movie that’s just about Bill Murray’s Grimm, a jaded former city planner, robbing a bank in full clown costume, and Quick Change understandably spends a lot of time on the initial robbery–but its real subject is what happens when it’s time to get out of town. The high-risk crime full of high-pressure performances goes more or less according to plan. It’s getting to the airport afterwards that’s tricky. You can plan a bank robbery, but you can’t plan for a meandering night in an uncooperative New York.
The movie becomes a kind of bemused, affectionate portrait of the city, one that moves easily from comedy to wonder, from a rigidly scrupulous bus driver to two men on bicycles jousting in a vacant lot. “It’s bad luck to even see a thing like that,” says one character, but the truth is that the movie just thinks it’s weirdly beautiful in its strangeness. Now, finding an old woman standing on a deserted street corner in the dark, endlessly shouting out, “FLORES PARA LOS MUERTOS”? That’s bad luck that fully deserves the exasperated response it gets: “Thank God she’s not symbolic or anything.”
Grimm is partnered up with Phyllis (Geena Davis), his pregnant girlfriend (not that he knows the first part), and Loomis (Randy Quaid), his lifelong friend who is a little bit dim and quick to panic. Grimm is the mastermind, and as nicely plotted and executed as his robbery is, the real fun of the movie is how good he is at frantically improvising without a safety net. And he has to do it a lot, because once the three of them make it out of the bank, almost nothing goes smoothly. There’s even an interesting emotional arc to all of Grimm’s impressive criminal ad-libbing: he adapts to the life so smoothly and quickly that it leaves Phyllis shaken, not sure if this is going to stay the one-time cash grab they swore it would be. She wanted the robbery to be a fun, sexy diversion in their going-nowhere lives, but as the night–and the crimes–drag on, it starts to feel like just another kind of life, and one she’s not sure she wants, especially with a child on the way.
Grimm’s competence–despite the comedy of errors–is nicely offset by Jason Robards’s Chief Rotzinger, whose initial, more butt-of-the-joke entrance belies the fact that he’s the real deal: genuinely sharp and on-the-ball, and even genuinely concerned about people. He’s smart enough to be a threat to our protagonists but likable enough that we can’t root for him to lose. The way the movie ties up that conflict might be a little too neat, but it’s also (in keeping with everything else) pretty delightful.
In short, if you want a comedy with unusually strong plotting and dramatic instincts–you could do worse for an illustration of Kurt Vonnegut’s rule about making sure every character wants something–then Quick Change is currently streaming on Kanopy.