Friday, January 06, 2017
Director: Harold Ramis
Writers: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis
Photography: John Bailey
Music: George Fenton
Editor: Pembroke J. Herring
Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Willie Garson, Harold Ramis, Michael Shannon
Groundhog Day is an American comedy with Bill Murray that manages to reach totally unexpected levels of dare I say wisdom. Or, at the very least, a powerful and suggestive kind of wish fulfillment. That's mostly a matter of its premise but it's also partly due to how cowriters Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis play it out. The casual word on the DVD extras now is that everyone loves it—everyone, including Buddhists, psychiatrists, Hasidic Jews, aboriginal shamans, and Scientologists, as well as practically everyone who worked on it and me too. We all see a secret in it, comporting with our belief systems, that we thought we might be the only ones who knew about.
It's funny too (which matters for a comedy), with Bill Murray in prime form and no one in his way. It was a big hit, and not just among Hasidic Jews. You've probably seen it yourself or at least know the basic idea: on February 2 of a typical day in the '90s, Phil Connors, a bitter and cynical weatherman (Murray), gets stuck in a time loop in Punxutawney, Pennsylvania. For most of the duration of the movie he is doomed (ultimately privileged) to live that day over and over again. Much of the power of this movie comes from what cowriter Rubin portentously calls "the weight of time." Well, it's portentous, but it's right. This is some other dimension where only a specific 24 hours exists—make it 23, as attempts to stay up until the change point, 6 a.m., mysteriously always fail (of course). But that one February 2 appears to exist for eternity. From what we see developing over its length, and according to Ramis, we're talking about millennia as a time span for this movie.
Connors is in Punxutawney with a television producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott), to cover the annual Groundhog Day ritual. Connors finds the whole thing a suffocating rite of mediocrity conducted by foolish people. It's funny to watch him (and them), but Connors is also a blatant self-centered dick. This is important because Tom Hanks was also considered for the part, and Hanks himself says this is where he would have failed over Murray. Connors thinks only of himself, and if he's funny, he's also hard to like. He has his eye only on getting better jobs in bigger markets than his current Pittsburgh base. "Someday someone's gonna see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don't have a future," he worries. Being better than everyone around him is all he cares about, followed quickly by getting laid on one-night stands with good-looking chicks.
But in his new reality, after spending a few years chasing down and bedding the town's good-looking women, Connors finds those priorities are all but meaningless on a day that simply repeats itself over and over. The narrative arc of Groundhog Day is reminiscent of Dickens's Christmas Carol. In other ways it's disorienting like Memento. Connors is a classic Scrooge type of figure—"mean" is the word you stammer for, outraged by his behavior (though laughing at much of it too). "What are you doing for dinner?" an old friend asks him. "Something else," he says. He calls an anchor he works with "Hairdo." When Rita confides to Connors that she studied 19th-century French poetry in college, it produces a classic Bill Murray pivot in place. First he openly laughs at her. "What a waste of time," he says. Beat. Beat. "I mean, for someone else that would be an incredible waste of time. It's so bold of you to choose that."
Connors must spend years at some things, such as learning to speak French (correcting his first reaction to her college major) and to play the piano. His early sexual adventures alone meant days and weeks of learning information to use to his advantage with each conquest. This process is shown in most detail with his attempts to have sex with Rita. Through trial and error he finds the places he can touch her, but he can never overcome her suspicion of him. She senses his rage, his own inadequacy, his self-loathing, the way he uses sex. The usual baggage that comes with sexual addictions and narcissistic disorders.
Connors is obviously putting himself through a painstaking process. How long would it take to learn French? He spends approximately centuries (much of the middle of the movie) attempting to seduce Rita though it never works. Then he enters a period of despair. How long it lasts we can't know—maybe very long. He kills himself in many different ways, often very comical, but still, he's killing himself. Only to find himself, at 6 a.m., the alarm clock sounding with Sonny & Cher and the chattering announcers again, waking him in his hotel bed again, for another February 2.
Finally, in his boredom—we presume it's boredom, starting to feel some of that "weight of time" ourselves now—Connors makes a project of making it the best possible day for himself and everyone around him every day. Every day he saves the same lives and helps the same three old women, who have a flat tire. He makes his peace with an annoying old friend. This is the uplifting part, and it's also the point where I think we can start talking about Harold Ramis and Bill Murray collaborating on a masterpiece. Because really that's what we have here. This thing holds up like gangbusters. And it needs both the perverse mean streak that Murray can do so well and Ramis's instinct to walk the sunny side of the street, a kind of Frank Capra impulse also seen in Ghostbusters, Robert De Niro in the Analyze movies, and elsewhere.
Because of the circumstances, Connors becomes omniscient. He learns everything there is to know about that day in Punxutawney. Then he learns to give to people—this is where the evolutionary scientists, Mormons, Taoists, existential Sisypheans, and all the rest are clamoring to get on board. We're talking about enlightenment, and it's a love train, that's what it is. But it's hard-won too. That's what makes it great. Connors learns to work with what he has in order to fit in and make it the best possible day for everyone around him. I know that sounds saccharine—and as it plays out in the ending, Murray himself is visibly struggling with the impulse to it (here and only here is where Tom Hanks might have been better). It's played awfully cloyingly sweet. But I submit it works, perhaps because, one last saving grace, Groundhog Day also turns out to be one of the great winter movies, up there with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fargo, Midnight Cowboy, and A Simple Plan. It's cold weather and winter storms all the way in this stone classic.