A Choice Of Chuckles

As unpretentious summer entertainments, the comedies Quick Change and The Freshman and the comic horror film Arachnophobia all deliver what they promise. Each will make you laugh (and one squirm as well). What kind of laughter do you prefer: the consistent chuckles of "Quick Change," the wilder but more erratic guffaws of "The Freshman," or the anxiety-induced shrieks of Arachnophobia"?

Of the three, "Arachnophobia" is the slickest product: it pushes the audience's buttons with Pavlovian finesse, manufacturing industrial-strength adrenaline. First-time director Frank Marshall has long been Steven Spielberg's producer, and he's learned the master's lessons well. Basically, he has given A production values to an old B-movie formula: this is the one about the small town threatened by alien invaders. In the '50s it would have been a bargain-basement black and white programmer about outer-space critters or giant mutant insects; here it's a new breed of deadly spiders transported from Venezuela that wreaks havoc on an idyllic (Spiel)burg. Can the transplanted city doctor--the deft Jeff Daniels--overcome his childhood trauma about spiders and save the day? Writers Don Jakoby, Al Williams and Wesley Strick cheerfully play on our creepiest, crawliest fears (spiders in the toilet), pay hommage to scenes from "Psycho" and "Jaws" and give John Goodman a juicy cameo as a slob/macho exterminator who fancies himself the Rambo of bug killers. But for a movie that purports to play on primal terrors, "Arachnophobia" is oddly unresonant. Those creaky old B movies, with all their rough edges, sometimes got under your skin; gleaming and self-contained, "Arachnophobia" gives you a proper jolt and then disappears from the mind without a trace. It's a horror film that never takes off its sanitized plastic wrapping.

Bill Murray's "Quick Change"--which the star codirected with writer Howard Franklin--is a caper comedy that catalogs the exasperations of life in New York City. Remember the old Neil Simon comedy "The Out-of-Towners," about the indignities inflicted upon newcomers to Manhattan? Well this is "The Get-Out-of-Towners," about a trio of fed-up urbanites turned criminals who, after carrying off a million-dollar bank heist, find that getting out of the Rotten Apple is much harder than a holdup. They can't even find a cabbies who speaks English, never mind their problems with the Mafia and a police chief (Jason Robards) who's staked his reputation on finding them. Murray, Randy Quaid and Geena Davis are the unlikely team of crooks, and they make a fine trio--Murray ever ironic in the face of mounting castastrophe, Quaid as fIummoxed and hysterical as Murray is cool, Davis adorable and down to earth.

"Quick Change" gets off to a jolly start with Murray in clown drag masterminding the daredevil heist, and if the comedy never builds to any great comic payoff, it glides along in a smart, amiably quirky manner. As directors, Murray and Franklin don't have much visual fiair, but they know how to scale the comedy to Murray's own throwaway style (unlike the overproduced "Scrooged"). The movie has a comfy, lived-in feel; it doesn't beat you over the head for laughs, or take its horrors-of-New York theme too seriously. Smile and enjoy.

Andrew Bergman, who wrote and directed "The Freshman," is an off-the-wall humorist whose best work-- "The In-Laws," "Blazing Saddles" --can really soar. "The Freshman" has a preposterous plot even the writer's mother couldn't believe, and it strains and creaks down the runway, but when this baby gets off the ground, we're talking seriously funny. Matthew Broderick plays a film student newly arrived in New York who, through a series of mishaps, finds himself employed by an enormous mafioso bearing an uncanny resemblance to the godfather. It is, in fact, Marlon Brando, doing a delicious, strangled-voiced self-parody. His presence alone makes Bergman's movie a treat--and the sight of him on ice skates (don't ask why) provides a demented grace note. Brando assigns Broderick the task of picking up a valuable "package" at the airport. It turns out to be a giant lizard--endangered species called the Komodo dragon. It would spoil Bergman's nuttiest conceit to reveal the reason the lizard has been imported, or why Bert Parks appears singing "There she is, your Komodo dragon" in the film's hilarious climax. Broderick plays expert straight man to the lunacy, which includes the zany Penelope Ann Miller as Brando's amorous daughter, Maximilian Schell as a madly Teutonic chef, John Polito as an ominous Justice Department deputy and Bruno Kirby as a scruffy Family member. Of these three movies, "The Freshman" is the most uneven. It's also the most memorable.