Quick Change (1990)

For years, I’ve been curious about the New York City-set heist comedy Quick Change because of a single, isolated image: Bill Murray robbing a bank while dressed like a birthday clown. Since at least as far back as Rushmore, Murray has been perpetually playing a sad clown type in nearly all of his onscreen roles, so it seemed too perfect that there was a film out there where he made the archetype literal. Unfortunately, Murray The Clown does not last too long into Quick Change‘s runtime. It makes for a wonderfully bizarre image, but the bank-robbing clown sequence is only a short introduction to the film’s larger plot. As a heist film, Quick Change does not put much stock into the intricate difficulties of robbing a bank in New York City; it’s more concerned with the complications of making away with the loot in a city that resembles an urbanized Hell. As the tagline puts it, “The bank robbery was easy. But getting out of New York was a nightmare.”

The cliché statement “New York City itself is a character in the film” usually means that a movie uses the rich, multicultural setting of the city to breathe life into the background atmosphere, usually by including a large cast of small roles from all walks of NYC life. In Quick Change, New York City is a character in that it’s a malicious villain, going out of its way to destroy the lives of the film’s bank-robbing anti-hero. In a media climate stuffed with so many gushing love letters to the magic of New York, Quick Change is fascinating as a harshly critical screed trying to tear the city down, which is an impressively bold perspective for unassuming mid-budget comedy. The birthday clown bank heist is certainly the best-looking & most impressively choreographed sequence of the film, especially in the gradual reveal that Murray had two insiders helping him pull off the robbery while hiding in plain sight as hostages (Geena Davis & Randy Quaid). The dynamic among this trio doesn’t hold as much emotional weight as the film requires it to, but they are amusingly dwarfed by the complex shittiness of a larger city that has trapped them with a never ending series of obstacles between them & the airport. Murray explains to his cohorts, in reference to the police on their tails, “Our only hope is that they’re mired in the same shit we have to wade in every day.” This filthy, crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani New York is crawling with reprobates always on the verge of sex & violence. Passersby whistle at & ogle Geena Davis and express disappointment when strangers nearly die but pull through. Mobsters, construction workers, and fascist bus drivers make simple tasks complex ordeals. Mexican immigrants joust on bicycles with sharpened garden tools. There’s a hideous, hateful side of the city waiting to reveal itself at every turn, which the movie posits as a facet of daily life in the Big Rotten Apple.

Quick Change falls at an interesting midpoint in Bill Murray’s career, halfway between the comedy megastar days of Ghostbusters & Stripes and the serious artist collaborations with auteurs like Wes Anderson & Sofia Coppola. Once Jonathan Demme dropped out as the film’s director, Murray himself stepped in as co-director (along with his partner in the elephant-themed road comedy Larger than Life, Howard Franklin) and you can see why it was important for him to hold onto the project in that way. Quick Change was not a commercial hit (despite positive reviews), but it does a good job of allowing Murray to play to his strengths as a downtrodden, put-upon cynic while still adhering to the general aesthetic of a commercially-friendly late 80s comedy (which unfortunately includes gay panic & racial stereotype humor in its DNA). A more interesting film might have held onto his birthday clown costuming for longer into the runtime, even as he struggled to escape the chaotic nastiness of New York City at large, but as a transitional piece between too radically different points in Murray’s career the movie is admirably goofy & bizarre. It even has a kind of cultural longevity in the way it includes then-young actors like Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, and Kurtwood Smith among the general population of the ruffians of New York, a city the movie clearly hates.

-Brandon Ledet

Marjorie Prime (2017)

Originally written for the stage, Marjorie Prime tells the story of multiple generations of the family of Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman with dementia. Her companions over the years range from two separate dogs named Toni-with-an-i, a caretaker who lets her sneak cigarettes (Stephanie Andujar), her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law John (Tim Robbins), and a holographic avatar of her late husband Walter (John Hamm), appearing as he did in his younger years. At the start of the film, Marjorie’s “Prime,” the avatar of Walter, is still learning from her. He helps her with his dementia: providing companionship, reminding her to eat, and recounting (and editing when asked) stories of their past together when Marjorie can’t remember. Tess is disturbed by his presence and his appearance, but John convinces her of the program’s value. When Marjorie dies, Tess gets a prime of her own in the form of Marjorie to deal with her grief. And so a cycle is created, one that echoes and ripples into eternity.

This is a deeply somber and introspective film, a poignant meditation on the nature of what we call memory and how we define it as an objective history as well as how, at its core, “memory” is ultimately both fallible and malleable. As Tess points out in the film, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.

If you search for the film online, it’s defined as a drama/mystery, but that’s not entirely accurate. There is a dark family secret that slowly unscrolls and unspools over the course of the movie’s runtime, recounted in different ways by different people (some of whom aren’t people at all), but it’s not a mystery that you want to solve. The characters in the film don’t want to remember, and that affects the viewer as well; once you know the truth, you remember that the urge to expunge is often as powerful as the urge to record, that the desire to remember is counterposed by all the things we wish we could forget.

Marjorie Prime is at turns celebratory and solemn, weaving back and forth through different perspectives and memories that seem at times false and sometimes too real, and occasionally both. The direction is organic, and the audience is drawn into the film naturally, as if you are in the living room with Tess and Marjorie as they discuss Tess’s own daughter, Marjorie’s memory of the night that Walter proposed, or going to get Toni-with-an-i 2 from the pound in “the old Subaru,” and how the more time passed the more Toni 1 and Toni 2 became the same dog in Marjorie’s memories. The deft hand of subtlety is felt throughout, be it in evidence of recurring musical talent among the women in the family (Marjorie the violinist, Tess the pianist, and the unseen blue-haired Reyna and her band), or in the way that the passage of time is reflected by the appearance of new lamps and other furniture, or in the film’s final moments, which have a distinct “There Will Come Soft Rains” vibe. It’s a story that will follow you all the way home and get into bed with you, and you’ll appreciate the companion for as long as it will let you, before it too passes into the unending waves of time that erode away memory as surely as the ocean obliterates footprints in the sand.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond