Monday, August 27, 2012
Directed by Howard Franklin & Bill Murray; screenplay by Howard Franklin; produced by Bill Murray & Robert Greenhut
I saw this movie, like so many others, when it was on cable constantly in the very early 1990s. I remember my Dad liked it, so we watched it a couple of times. Then I mostly forgot it and decided it was time for a re-evaluation. Watching it last night, I began to realize why I had forgotten so much of it, but I have a hard time putting a name to exactly what the problem is.
As the movie begins, we follow Bill Murray, dressed as a clown, as he robs a bank and creates a hostage situation. His plan is brilliant: his accomplices (girlfriend Geena Davis and childhood friend Randy Quaid) are already inside, and no one can identify him because of the makeup. He thwarts the police (led by Jason Robards, who is really good in this, as he nearly always was) at every turn, then pretends to be a released hostage so he and his accomplices can get away with the money. The cops are supposed to think the clown's still inside.
I remembered that part of the movie really well; it's tight, it's funny, it's slick and well-acted. After the escape (which happens about 20 minutes into what is a refreshingly lean, focused, short movie, here in the days of 3 hour epic meditations on the meaning of Batman), I had forgotten the entirety of the plot. What happens after is an exercise in frustration as the three get lost, lose their car, get lost some more, and Bill Murray talks his way out of several situations while Robards combs the city looking for him before he can get to the airport and fly to Fiji (or Martinique, depending on which reservation they make).
After that great opening, the film sort of becomes a simmer. I remember Roger Ebert describing the film as funny but not inspired, and I think that's a great way to put it. Though it remains a comedy throughout, and a relatively well-paced one, the one thing it doesn't really do well is generate laughs. It amuses, and Murray's skill as a comic actor is evident throughout, but somehow almost none of it connects. It should be a lot more fun than this watching Bill Murray talk Mafia functionaries out of $6000, but it just never catches fire. It just sort of happens and we watch it happen but it never hits the target.
There is one major exception where the film does pull me back in, and that's a terrific, tense sequence where Murray needs to go into a corner grocer to get exact change for a bus that goes near the airport. To do so, he's got to wade through a seeming ocean of cops and bystanders without getting recognized, and avoid a mob enforcer who wants his money back, and wait for a customer at the front of the line who has seemingly an endless amount of groceries. All before the hardass bus driver drives off in accordance with his rigid, timed-to-the-second schedule. Oh, and there's a foreign cab driver with the cops just looking to ID him. The sequence is just amazingly suspenseful, and it's the only time I found myself really involved in these three and their attempts to flee New York City.
Otherwise, I never really got involved in the characters at all. I got involved in the actors, because they're all good. Murray is a consummate pro, and Geena Davis is always great. Jason Robards is somehow driven and laid back at the same time, and Randy Quaid's crazy is reined-in and almost sweet. But I just never became invested in their story, their desires, or their disgust with the big city.
At least the pay-off is nicely handled at the end. But the journey isn't anything more than kind of entertaining, a little tedious, and curiously removed. Too bad.