New York City is looking for one film to unite all New Yorkers, via a contest co-sponsored by the metropolis and the New York Times. But the five candidates on the short list are insufficient in that each of them speaks either to a distinct subculture unfamiliar to the majority (Crooklyn, The Wedding Banquet, Desperately Seeking Susan) or is a period piece from a vanished and unrecognizable era (New York, New York and On the Town).
Yet there is a film that speaks to all New Yorkers, now and probably forever: Quick Change.
The movie (which is now available on HBO platforms) is a 1990 Bill Murray bank robbery comedy, a more sardonic version of 1975’s classic Dog Day Afternoon. The Al Pacino drama is also one of my favorites, but the way it romanticized batty rebels is a quintessentially 1970s fixation. Murray’s movie (which is the only one he ever directed, in a joint effort with Howard Franklin) is timeless. It comes as close as any movie ever made to re-creating the actual lived experience of existence in New York City: vexation, exasperation, confusion, enforced waiting, mild chaos. Given a slight tweak, the film could be an episode of The Twilight Zone (a parallel with 1961’s “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” comes to mind) about the soul-crushing futility of trying to escape the city. Quick Change is Gotham’s rejoinder to “Hotel California”: You can check out any time you like, but you can never find the exit ramp. “God, I hate this town,” Murray says. Spoken like a true New Yorker. It’s ironic that he works in the city planning department, because it’s the city where nothing goes as planned.
Murray’s character, called Grimm because this is a twisted contemporary fairy tale, disguises himself as a clown to rob a bank along with two accomplices, his girlfriend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and his nervous childhood friend Loomis (Randy Quaid). Grimm is a fast-thinking schemer who has all the angles worked out, and he has a wise-guy one-liner ready for any situation. He’s a classic New York figure, but his most redoubtable enemy is not the hard-edged police chief (Jason Robards) he outsmarts on the phone. It’s the city itself. When the chief, Rotzinger, realizes he’s been duped into letting the robbers escape, he has this memorable exchange with a deputy: “They’re probably in the Third World by now.” “Yes, sir, someplace nice!” replies the other man. “All we’ve got going for us is the city,” says the chief. “Our only hope is that they’re mired down in the same s**t that you and I have to wade in every day.”
Which is exactly what happens. The bank robbers get lost on the way to the airport because of road work, and because the construction workers who took down a key sign don’t know the neighborhood and will accept no responsibility for replacing the sign. “Not today,” they explain. “Today’s just taking s**t down.” Another attempt to ask directions is foiled when the man they stop turns out to be preparing to engage in a bicycle jousting match with garden implements. The most normal fellow they can find to ask for help — a preppy type in an anyone-for-tennis sweater and a car with Iowa license plates — instead robs them of the clothes they were going to change into.
New York in recent decades hasn’t been plagued by pervasive violence, as in Taxi Driver, or moral and literal filth, as in Midnight Cowboy, or even sinister bands of mimes in matching outfits and top hats, as in The Warriors. It’s more like a spider web of the frustrating and weird, each filament hopelessly entangling you in another. The more you struggle, the more you get stuck.
As Grimm and pals are trying to change clothes in an apartment, they lose their car because of the following interlinked events: There is no place to park, so they leave the car at a hydrant. A fire breaks out in a nearby building, so the firemen destroy their car and drag it away from the hydrant. And the robbers can’t do anything but watch because a) they’re being held at gunpoint in a case of mistaken identity by a twitchy tenant (the late Phil Hartman) who has a gun because he has been mugged three times, and b) because the conversation drags on way too long owing to a digression about sublets and comparative rents. Their effort to escape Queens turns into an urban take on the Battle of Bosworth Field when they run down the street crying: “Taxi! Taxi! $10,000 for a Taxi!” When they find a cabdriver, he speaks no English, is ignorant of basic traffic laws, and doesn’t know how to get to the airport. When they board a bus, it’s exact change only, and a proffered $100 bill is inexact. When the bus takes them not to the airport but “near the airport,” they’re left on an unlit deserted street where a lone dog roams and a woman is screaming in Spanish in the distance.
In other words, the film is practically a documentary. If you want to live in New York, someone tells the banker-plutocrat Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, you’ve got to “insulate, insulate, insulate” from the chaos. But in Tom Wolfe’s vision only the super-rich even have a prayer at pulling it off, and Sherman’s case demonstrates, when he also gets lost on an airport trip because of poor signage, that even Masters of the Universe can’t completely insulate.
“It’s a helluva town,” the sailors sing in On the Town. “I’ll make a brand new start of it in old New York,” Liza Minnelli sings in New York, New York. In Quick Change, Grimm’s most fervent wish is to get away from New York in order to “live out our lives with a modicum of dignity.” Which is the moment when what’s left of his wrecked car passes by, at the humiliated end of a tow truck.