The wheelman’s sleek car, all gleaming surfaces, putters just beyond the scene of the heist. He sits behind the steering wheel, most often nearly wordless (as is the case in seminal getaway films The Driver and its high-octane offspring Drive) waiting to perform his feats of wizardry. His life, however, is stuck in neutral as his fantastic automotive exploits are little more than an exercise for an individual who is not nearly as cold-blooded as simply numb.
Such is the set-up for geek darling Edgar Wright’s latest film Baby Driver in which the titular character (played by Ansel Elgort) is trapped in a repetitive loop of ferocious getaways that no longer offer satisfaction once a young waitress named Debora (Lily James) crashes Baby’s near-monastic silence with a grin. The film’s killer soundtrack has been rightfully lauded (it perfectly uses Baby’s case of tinnitus to play with diegetic sound) and it manages to be simultaneously nostalgic and inventive. No matter how loud the ringing, no matter what song is playing, Baby cannot outrun the echoes of his past.
In the heist film, one last score is the key to a greater future, a way to change gears in one’s life. Bill Murray and Howard Franklin’s Quick Change is a getaway film where the car won’t start. The comedic conceit of “what happens in a getaway film where you can’t getaway?” often stalls, but the viewer’s frustration effectively mirrors that of Murray’s protagonist, Grimm. What we are witnessing is a feat of misdirection, a hallmark of the heist film or any good grift, in which the viewer hops aboard the heist genre only to be hoodwinked into a “Road Movie” (think Planes, Trains, and Automobiles).
The film itself plays a game of Three-card Monte with the viewer in its opening frame. We are engulfed in an image of the New York skyline’s timeless majesty that would be welcome in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. We sit for a beat, feeling the impenetrable elegance press upon us. The camera tracks backwards revealing that our city is little more than a subway advertisement, a facsimile of an impossible world that can only exist in the mind of Madison Avenue.
The camera pans along a subway bench (one of the joys of the film is its role as visual time capsule) revealing straphangers in various states of misery, until stopping on a gloomy clown clutching a handful of balloons. This is Murray’s Grimm, in a pre-Rushmore hangdog performance in which the malaise of middle age has stomped on his wisecracks with big red shoes. Or as Grimm says himself, “I’m the kind of clown crying on the inside.”
Grimm executes his heist using his partners-in-crime (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid) as hostages–plants that are ultimately the engine of the operation. His sad clown stalking through the bank vault making ludicrous demands (a monster truck) reveals a psyche that believes the impossible is always in reach, you just have to ask.
Quick Change should have a home in the “New York film” cannon as the law is not the antagonist of the film, rather it is New York City itself. Much like Martin Scorsese’s darkly comic classic After Hours, New York cannot be escaped. It releases its minions in a myriad of forms, most often ridiculous and unexpected. The city to Grimm, who works as a city planner prior to his dreams of flight, is unknowable, at times menacing. It is the absurd nature of threat, those true “What the hell?” moments, that make the film worth watching.
With its “building sold” signs and construction just outside the window, Quick Change’s New York is constantly evolving. It is the seeming suddenness of this change that inspires Grimm to set his sights on an idyllic life in Barbados. To Grimm, in the same way the city affects many of its current denizens, New York is not growing, it’s dying. Seen from the vantage of nearly 30 years, it’s clear gentrification and the corporatization of New York are as embedded in the foundation of the city as the bedrock.
The film has aged beyond the wide ties and shoulder pads in suits. With its humor derived from moments of flippant racism, homophobia, and xenophobia Quick Change is a reminder of how mainstream movies punched downward. Maybe it’s not that dated at all. The extratextual layer of a loony Randy Quaid on the run is fun if you’re into that sort of thing.
What is enjoyable about the film is how it inverts expectations, which can be the pleasure of watching a movie. Sit down to a Bill Murray comedy, turn off the TV, and question the direction of your life. Quick Change lays the groundwork for Murray’s performances for the next 20-plus years. Ultimately, the film posits that the “New York Minute” in which your life can change takes a hell of a lot longer and A LOT more work than you think.
Quick Change can be streamed on Amazon Prime and HBO GO.