It’s Groundhog Day ... again. February 2nd is the day on which James Joyce was born, Sid Vicious died and a large squirrel in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, predicts the coming of the Spring. Thanks to Harold Ramis’ 1993 film, the last fact is by far the best known. I’ve seen Groundhog Day twenty-two times and though I want to believe a film that can sustain so many repeat viewings is exceptional, I have a suspicion that the things we love most are like comfort food. As if to prove my point, here’s Phil Connors on the morning he accepts that he will live the same day over and over, joyfully stuffing his face with cake (Rita: I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind ... Phil: My years are not advancing as fast as you might think.) I wonder, if I had to forego all the spiky, minimalist stuff that fills my bookshelves, would I be happier with a single copy of Groundhog Day? I watched the film four times just to write this article and can I say: that was a pretty good day.
February 2nd is my birthday which is why I have seen Groundhog Day so often. It has become a kind of existential joke combined with a birthday treat. I can see its faults, the most obvious being its complete lack of any aesthetic sense. One might argue that the tacky clothes, chintzy interiors and cheesy music are designed to reflect middle America: a little bit dated, a little bit 80s, a little bit Huey Lewis and the News. Ramis chose to shoot in a suburb of his mid-west Chicago home rather than the real-life Punxsutawney and the result is very much a local affair, populated with actors from Chicago’s Second City Theatre. Underpinning the drama is a conflict between the big city wise-ass and the small-town ‘hicks’, as Phil Connors says. So, yes, one might suppose the set dressing and costumes poke fun at small town sensibilities. Except that Ramis’ commentary on the DVD makes clear this is his personal taste. He co-wrote the deadly theme song (“can’t you feel you’re warming up, yeah I’m your weatherman.”). He loves Phil’s bedroom so much, he asked the designer to re-do his own home. He swoons over the cinematographer’s use of soft-focus. Look at the gold-stripe waistcoat Andie McDowell wears in the evening: it is supposed to flatter her. It makes her look like curtains.
February 2nd is my birthday which is why I have seen Groundhog Day so often. It has become a kind of existential joke combined with a birthday treat.
Andie MacDowell has a thankless role as Rita, playing the uptight straight-woman to a comically boorish man, just as she did in the earlier Green Card. Yet she is also asked to be so childlike that when a man who has shown her nothing but contempt declares he is trapped in a cosmic time-loop, she believes him. On the final Groundhog Day, her childish sense of wonderment allows Rita to fall in love with Phil. I mean, gosh, she’s an upbeat lady, but if all women were like Rita, Pollyanna would be a documentary.
So, yes, the film has problems. But what makes it good? There is no doubt, it grows on you. Roger Ebert has recanted an initial, sniffy review to include the film in his personal best-ever list. Back in 1993, I was not as smitten as I am now. We talk about auteur cinema and actors’ films, but perhaps we should also talk about Line Producer cinema. Groundhog Day appears to have a tricksy form, but its story suits the logistics of film production better than more conventional films. A typical movie will be filmed out of sequence and reassembled in the edit, making it tough for actors to recall the appropriate emotional response. In contrast, Groundhog Day often looks like a series of out-takes, as it riffs on the idea of repetition. Phil is seen in the same location, at first sarcastic, then disorientated, angry, ebullient, then suicidal. Each location has its own mini-story – the breakfast room, the cafe, the street with Needlenose Ned Ryerson – while the narrative unfolds in a series of sketches. Ramis started out directing the semi-improvised Second City TV and no film could be better suited to his talents or experience. Groundhog Day is essentially a series of logistical problems collectively solved by a comic ensemble, many of whom had worked together for twenty years.
Within the ensemble, of course, one man stands out. This is Bill Murray’s film. Ramis and Murray collaborated countless times before Groundhog Day on stage, radio, TV and film. Ramis has said, “As a person of intellect, I could complement John (Belushi) or Bill (Murray), who were people of instinct; I could help guide and deploy that instinct.” Ramis’ view of Murray as a replacement Belushi led to Murray slobbing through films like Caddyshack and Stripes. Yet the precursors of weatherman Phil Connors surely lie in Murray’s take on Ebenezer Scrooge in Scrooged and the hardnosed Chicagoan seeking enlightenment in The Razor’s Edge, films he made without Ramis. It is Murray’s intellect – his unfathomable knowingness – that elevates Groundhog Day and means that each viewing delivers a new shot of pleasure: like cinematic crack. Murray’s knowingness is like cat-nip to the more self-consciously cool directors, like Wes Anderson (Rushmore), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) or Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers). His endless reprisals of Phil Connors’ in their films could be seen as cosmic revenge for a near-perfect performance, but there is one thing Murray has never repeated. After Groundhog Day, he never worked with Ramis again. It is reported that they do not even speak.
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