Groundhog Day

It’s a doozy.

Groundhog Day (1993)

It’s February 2nd! I felt like reviewing something fitting and as there’s no film entitled Piss Wet Miserable Grey Existence as of yet, I settled on Groundhog Day. The film is an undeniable modern classic and has entered popular culture like some awesome simile I can’t think of right now. It’s also one of my favourite films (I know I seem to say this a lot, but it’s a long damn list, OK?). So what makes it so fucking special? Well, stow the attitude and the pottymouth and I’ll try to explain.

“I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters.*That* was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get *that* day over, and over, and over?”

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a TV weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog festival in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Along with new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) he begrudgingly travels to the town, where he finds that once the day is over, it restarts, leaving everyone but Phil completely oblivious to what has happened. Phil ends up stuck in a time loop, re-living the same day over and over and over with no end in sight. The concept is so famous, the term “groundhog day” has come to mean repeating the same things again and again. The whole film is basically a showcase for Bill Murray and he’s more than up for the task. It’s one of his all-time great roles, playing to his strengths but also giving him plenty to work with. He starts off in his comfort zone, in full sardonic mode but soon starts changing into a character you genuinely feel for, rather than just revelling in his cool jerkyness. I’ll get back to Andie MacDowell in a minute (ooh, ominous!). I think Chris Elliot is often overlooked as Larry, but the script allows him some nice moments and he does well with what he’s given. Stephen Tobolowsky also makes several scene-stealing appearances as Ned Ryerson, an insurance salesman who may be the most irritating man in the world.

It’s incredibly frustrating when a film has an awesome concept and doesn’t fully explore it or go anywhere fun with it. Groundhog Day is not one of those films. In fact, it’s the complete polar opposite. It takes its central conceit and runs with it, giving us a full gamut of interesting takes on what life would be like if we lived in a consequence-free world. The film is open to all sorts of interpretations, with theories ranging from religious allegory, a take on reincarnation and metaphysics, a metaphor for depression- all the way up to representing the five stages of grief. Crucially, the film never explains why Phil is living the same day repeatedly, which I think is a masterstroke. If the film would have been made today for modern dumbuses, there’d be a temptation to over-explain to avoid twats on the internet pointing out non-existent “plot holes” and they’d have cobbled together some bullshit “temporal loop ’cause of stuff” reason which would have hurt the film considerably. The point being is that despite this being a high-profile, decently budgeted big studio comedy back in the day, it inflamed the imagination. It made people ask themselves questions and think about some pretty out there existential stuff. Imagine that – a popular comedy that went deeper than yelling inappropriate things and broad-as-anything slapstick. Fuck.

I’m in love with the script for this film. The story is great and the dialogue is sharp and witty. It’s also structured incredibly well, the gag rate for the first half is fast and furious, but eventually winds down as Phil finds himself sinking into a detached depression, before picking up again as he focuses on self-improvement. It’s obviously more fun to watch Murray deadpan a few one-liners, break laws, con his way into a woman’s knickers and stuff cakes into his mouth with reckless abandon, but the slow evolution of the character is well-charted and subtly done. When sentiment and romance enter the fray it feels completely earned. The film isn’t afraid to explore some of the darker bits of humour either. Phil’s repeated suicides are blackly comic. The one scene I always remember is him coming down the stairs, dishevelled and not properly dressed, picking up a toaster and plodding back upstairs, getting in a full bath and dropping it in, not even bothering to remove the toast, and all whilst maintaining complete silence and a thousand-yard stare. It’s brilliant.

So, Andie MacDowell. I don’t want to come across as mean as I’m sure she’s lovely in person, but she is one of my only problems with the film. It’s not a necessarily a bad turn and it’s not even her worst performance, but there’s something incredibly flat about Rita. The character of Rita is completely integral to the story. She’s why Phil initially sinks into suicidal depression and then eventually the reason why he works on becoming a better person. She should be something really special. We need to fall in love with her too. On paper, it’s easy to see why Rita is interesting. Thanks to Phil’s repeated encounters and dates with her, we glean a lot about her life, her aspirations and her personality in general. She’s a fully realised character, but MacDowell just can’t sell it. There seems to be an emphasis on how quirky she is, initially to contrast with with Phil’s jaded disposition, but it just doesn’t work. Luckily, everything is so strong around her, it manages to make up for a lot.

“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”

Groundhog Day is a pitch-perfect comedy. It does practically everything right. It’s got a powerhouse performance by Murray and manages to broach big life questions and have a believable love story without being preachy or mawkish. Best thing about it is that it totally rewards repeat viewings too. It’s one of those films that I’ll put on if I’m in a shitty mood and find myself laughing all over again as well as feeling generally uplifted. Never has the phrase “timeless classic” been more appropriate.

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