HE’S HAVING THE WORST DAY OF HIS LIFE… OVER, AND OVER…
As a critic, one should be careful sometimes. In 1993, Washington Post’s Desson Howe sat down to watch a new movie starring Bill Murray, and he didn’t like it. Confidently, he stated in his review that Groundhog Day ”will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress”. 13 years later, exactly that happened. Howe has every right to dislike the movie, but he did gravely misjudge its impact. So did many others, including myself. Groundhog Day is sort of a movie that sneaks up on you years later as perhaps being better than your first impression.
It’s February 1 and a Pittsburgh TV crew is headed to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the largest of the state’s annual Groundhog Day festivities. The highlight is an event where a special groundhog’s appearance will indicate how much more winter weather can be expected. The crew consists of TV meteorologist Phil Connors (Murray), producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and Larry the cameraman (Chris Elliott). Phil, who hates his assignment (and pretty much everybody else), performs his duty the following day in Punxsutawney, but fails to predict the arrival of a blizzard. The storm makes it impossible for the TV crew to leave.
The next morning, Phil wakes up only to realize that it’s still February 2 and that he’s reliving the day. He’s stuck in a time loop and each Groundhog Day he’s the only one who knows it…
The romantic and the fantastical meet
Much of the charm of this film is due to the lovely portrayal of Punxsutawney as a peaceful, wintry, almost Christmas-sy town with good neighbors. A place to fall in love. It may very well be, but the film was shot in Woodstock, Illinois, a suburban community outside of Chicago. Still, the romantic and the fantastical meet in Groundhog Day; the story takes place in a warm bubble and exactly where that is doesn’t really matter.
There are elements of Frank Capra to the story; some of you will think of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Murray’s character may not be as lovable as Jimmy Stewart’s, but thanks to his performance we still root for the misanthropic weatherman. It wasn’t until Lost in Translation ten years later that Murray started getting reviews that took him more seriously, but Groundhog Day was a first indication of an actor whose work revealed something deeper behind that comical slacker façade. Because in spite of everything that’s funny and cozy about this movie, what touches us deeper is its serious elements. As Phil relives February 2 over and over his mindset changes in several ways. At first, he’s having fun with the obviously absurd fact of already knowing what everybody’s going to say and do. But he’s also falling in love with Rita the producer and tries to woo her, never quite succeeding. Every ”new day”, he gets a new chance to either change his approach or try to perfect a strategy that looks like it’s working. It still ends with him getting slapped in the face every night, but it’s an interesting project that serves as a commentary on how love is ”created” and what we do, desperately, to make it happen.
Then there’s also the darker direction that the story takes after a while, when Phil develops a depression, realizing that he may live forever like this, stuck in one day that never changes, and he turns to increasingly wild and even suicidal adventures, just to see what happens.
Murray handles this balance between the hilarious and the heartbreaking very well. He’s an outsider in this film, much like he is in Japan in Lost in Translation. I guess we do like him best as a perennial outcast/rebel.
Groundhog Day 1993-U.S. 103 min. Color. Produced by Trevor Albert, Harold Ramis. Directed by Harold Ramis. Screenplay: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis. Cast: Bill Murray (Phil Connors), Andie MacDowell (Rita Hanson), Chris Elliott (Larry), Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, Marita Geraghty… Michael Shannon. Cameo: Harold Ramis.
Trivia: Shannon’s first feature film. Remade in Italy as Stork Day (2004). Later a stage musical.
BAFTA: Best Original Screenplay.
Last word: “They were like two brothers who weren’t getting along. And they were pretty far apart on what the movie was about – Bill wanted it to be more philosophical, and Harold kept reminding him it was a comedy.” (Rubin on the feud between Ramis and Murray that began during the making of the film, New Yorker)