“Okay, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today!”
“It’s cold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?”
We had just re-viewed The Wizard of Oz and John Carpenter’s The Thing which, by themselves, speak to different (and often more effective eras of special effects), and which also reflect intense care in every shot, scene or sequence, and when Groundhog Day rolled around this Thursday, The Boy and I were interested—but not really excited—to go see it. (Around here, Groundhog Day is considered to be part of a trilogy with Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day.)
Modestly received in 1993, with a box office sandwiched between Grumpy Old Men and Free Willy, this story of a weatherman forced to relive the same day over and over has grown in stature over time. Sometimes, of course, this happens from mere nostalgia but a close re-view shows that, like, The Thing and The Wizard of Oz, the moment-by-moment attention to detail that makes a good movie great.
This could’ve been a hacky rip-off of It’s A Wonderful Life, but two plot points elevate it: one by its absence and one by its presence. The absent plot point was a detail in the original script where Phil’s curse is revealed to have been placed on him by an embittered ex-girlfriend. Without that, we are left to see it as a punishment/gift from God—a chance for redemption. In fact, when Phil has his first sincere night with Rita, he tells her that he fell in love with her at first sight, and in that moment realized that who he was was not good enough for her. The “curse” can seen to be self-inflicted from that point.
The second point happens right after that scene, when after finding true love and sincerity, Phil wakes up on the exact same day. In other words, love—not even “true love”—is not enough to redeem him. He needs to extend this love out to the world. He needs to be that person he wants to be, and have that be enough.
Huge points to Harold Ramis (who has a cameo as a doctor, just like Jon Favreau in Elf, making me wonder if this is some kind of bone thrown to Jewish mothers of actors) for cutting the curse scene, and for recognizing something a little more divine in the overall arc.
Obviously, though, this movie is powered by Bill Murray’s performance. After a disastrous plunge into serious drama—The Razor’s Edge, which he negotiated by agreeing to be in Ghostbusters—Murray began to put more dramatic depth into comedic roles. For a while, his signature role was “The Jerk Who Gets Redeemed”, beginning with Scrooged and sorta wearing out its welcome with Larger Than Life (one of two elephant-based films of the year), but finding something akin to perfection here.
Phil Connors is deeply unlikable when we meet him. At his worst, Murray’s smarminess can seep into what should be sincere moments—in my opinion, a weakness of the original Ghostbusters—but here, he’s in full command of it. When he first sees Rita, he falls in love with her, but his way of dealing with people is by being a jerk, which is not a tactic that’s going to work with her. His arrogance is so severe, that he cannot accept the smallest kindness gracefully, as when Rita puts him up in the B&B instead of the “fleabag hotel”. (This isolation from the rest of his crew, Rita and Larry, is a good dramatic move as well.)
By turns, we see Phil go from arrogance to fear to a maniacal kind of anger to sly manipulation which, when it fails in his approaches to Rita, leads to despair, apathy and repeated suicides. (As The Boy noted, “Feel good movies can get really dark!”). At no point, though, do we get any sense from Murray-the-actor that he feels like he’s above the material, or see the kind of compulsive clowning and defusing of potentially strong drama. In fact, after Phil’s first near-miss with Rita, his desperate attempts to “be fun” feel almost like Murray self-parody.
Freed of any distractions, Phil begins to discover the world—and other people. And, while he pines for Rita, he’s ultimately happy in serving others in his never-ending series of “now”s. Again, Murray’s sincerity wins out and, by the end, even some of his signature smarmy moves come across as genuine, which is a hell of a feat. In fact, I don’t wonder if the fact that he is less identified with a certain style of comedy today than he was 30 years ago is part of what makes the movie better with time (cf. Edward G. Robinson’s performance in The 10 Commandments).
Beyond Murray, the supporting cast is perfect. I have noted in the past that Rita is the weak link—I mean, she majored in 19th century French Poetry and visibly disapproves of Phil because she always drinks to World Peace—but whatever limitations Andie MacDowell has an actress, she manages to make some insufferable characteristics charming. The World Peace thing, for example, looks to be less about disapproving of Phil for drinking to the groundhog, and more about his
Chris Elliott as Larry is, I think, kind of a reminder that even if we’re not all as bad as Phil, we all have our own kinds of arrogance and interest in having others love us more than we wish to love them in return. Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson—whose performance Ramis struggled mightily to rein in—is also one of those characters that would challenge the best of us to be generous and gracious, but in the context of the movie, that makes him more than just comic relief.
The movie never tries to tell us people are perfect, overly good or smart, but that they are worthy of being treated well nonetheless—and we are all served by doing so. And it does this without losing sight of the need to be funny and entertaining, and not preachy.
This, from the guy who directed Caddyshack and Vacation. It’s definitely worth a re-watch.