Dir. by Harold Ramis - 1 hr. 41 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There's been several Bill Murray phases over his career, and which one is your favorite version can depend on a lot of things, including which version you were introduced to first. I look at "Groundhog Day" as being the finest film of his second phase (the first being broader comedies, running through about "Ghostbusters"). Scratch that, it's one of the greatest comedies of all time from where I'm sitting. Murray would do equally affecting work later on, but probably until "Rushmore," there's nothing that hit all the sweet spots simultaneously.
Phil (Bill Murray) is a weatherman with a generally awful attitude, compounded by the fact that he's up against his yearly assignment to head to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day, and local celebrity groundhog Phil. His crew, including producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) put up with his behavior, not really having much choice. A blizzard that Phil had mistakenly thought was headed elsewhere forces them all to stay in Punxsatawney for the night, which is even more fuel for Phil's attitude of misery and condescension. That's when something funny happens; when Phil wakes up the next morning, it's Groundhog Day all over again. Over and over again, starting with Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," Phil has to relive Groundhog Day repeatedly, and with no instructions.
There are a million ways to dive into talking about "Groundhog Day," but my first statement has to be to reaffirm the impossible: Murray and director Harold Ramis have made a comedy that stands the test of time. Just like "Some Like it Hot" or "The Odd Couple," the concept is rock-solid, the humor character-based (instead of a barrage of references, which age instantly and awfully), and the performances are dead-on. So let's start with the concept. The idea of having to endlessly repeat the same day is a sort of philosophic exercise on it's own - what would you do with endless time? This becomes a test of one's character. Phil starts off with the easy stuff; seducing a woman through deceit, amusing himself, even unarmed robbery to finance his hijinks. When that wears thin, he sets his aims higher; seducing his producer. In the terms of this story, she represents a clear upgrade in the female companionship department; she's upbeat, intelligent, willing to stand for what she believes in. And Phil starts each day having dug himself a hole with his previous behavior and attitude.
On one hand, this goal represents a stronger challenge, but it also gets at the heart of Phil's problem: people are just props to his own goals. Rita turns out to be an uncrackable nut, which reveals a startling truth about Phil to himself; even armed with infinite time with which to mine Rita's life for inside information that he can use to present himself in a more appealing fashion, Phil is fundamentally incorrect for Rita. Throughout the film, we see Phil trying to take shortcuts. The most visible way is in his daily broadcast covering the groundhog, but it's also on display with his sequence of dates with Rita, where he's theoretically nailing down what he needs to do step-by-step in order to bed her in one day. When he discovers something that works organically, it's fine, but when he repeats it the next time around, it's insincere and hurried, and turns Rita off from him. This is one of the geniuses of casting Bill Murray in this role; he errs towards insincerity and wit anyways, which can feel very off-putting, which leads to Murray being at his funniest and completely failing at his goals. And, to hammer on the philosophy side, change can be painful and unwelcome. But that's exactly what's required of Phil.
But that's not what comes first. Despondency over his inability to seduce Rita builds into nihilism, because when you can't achieve the only goal that you've set for yourself, what point is life? Phil tries to avoid the question, killing himself repeatedly. But he still keeps waking up to the sounds of Sonny and Cher every morning, no matter what fate he's met the night before. Even though Phil doesn't consciously come to the realization, he does recognize on some level that what's wrong with the situation is himself. He stops worrying about himself, and tries to help some people around him, starting with a homeless man. Even though he ultimately can't do anything to help the homeless man, Phil learns the value of the people around him. This sounds like something that could be extraordinarily trite and hollow, but it's a transformative experiences for Phil, and one of the first steps in building himself into the sort of person that everyone (and Rita, although he's apparently given up on that) can respect and enjoy the company of.
Even though "Groundhog Day" is sharply written, it wouldn't be the same movie that it is without Bill Murray's performance. This film contains a wide range of what he's capable of, while deconstructing the appeal of a lot of '80s comedy (it's hard to look at Chevy Chase or some of Steve Martin's arrogant characters that we're supposed to identify with in the same way after this film). The story itself requires Murray to start as someone we're repulsed by, and then follow his development into something else, and to stay entertained the whole way. That's a much more complicated task than most comedies aim for, and "Groundhog Day" and Bill Murray pull it off. It's the difference between trying to pull laughs and trying to get an audience to actually feel something, the use of an advanced skill as a tool towards another, more difficult aim.
I'm not even sure how many times I've seen "Groundhog Day." Maybe ten? I saw it when it came out when I was in high school, so that's probably not a crazy estimate. But it's such a rare beast, a comedy that holds up, and holds up even beyond just being funny. How many movies that don't suck get across the need for empathy for others, and the rewards that can bring and do it without being maudlin or sappy? There's enough greatness in "Groundhog Day" before you even scratch the surface to see what's beneath, I recommend it without reservation.
5 / 5 - DVD