Thursday, February 12, 2015

WHATCHA WATCHIN'? 11. Groundhog Day (1993)

“Oh, let's not spoil it!”

Groundhog Day (1993); directed by Harold Ramis; written by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, from a story by Rubin; produced by Harold Ramis and Trevor Albert; music by George Fenton; cinematography by John Bailey; editing by Pembroke J. Herring; distributed by Columbia Pictures; for full details and awards, go here.

Yes, Groundhog Day has come and gone. It’s a day that never made much impression on me until Harold Ramis, with co-screenwriter Danny Rubin, created the film of that name. It’s such a striking “celebration” of the day that it became at once a tradition in my house to watch it every year when the otherwise easily ignorable “holiday” comes around. And this year—2015—was particularly fitting as we were in great expectation, here in the Northeast, of a “big blizzard thing.” We did get snowfall in Connecticut that was not negligible, and which, compared to predictions, was a bit more inconvenient than the “historic” storm of the previous week (what was that line about “count the storms of winter”?). Anyway, there is plenty of snow in bulk on the streets to foil parking and travel and walking the sidewalks requires a certain amount of strategy.

So, why not resuscitate my “50 Since 1970” series with a choice that makes it on because, yeah, I watch it at least once a year and it’s well on its way to “beloved” status. We lost Harold Ramis last year, in February no less, who was a comic presence well-liked since his brief stint with the initial cast—he was one of the chief writers—of Second City TV.

Ramis’s odd-ball genius is best represented by Groundhog Day, a film rather sui generis. It’s a comedy of (bad) manners, it’s a romantic comedy, it’s a comic quasi-Twilight Zone situation. News weatherman, and perennial misanthrope, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) gets trapped in a time warp that means he has to keep reliving February 2nd in Punxsutawny, PA, home of the groundhog, also named Phil, whose ability to see his shadow or not predicts the number of weeks to spring. Phil is there to cover the happy-go-lucky shenanigans with his new gee-willikers-style producer, Rita (Andie McDowell) and sniping camera-man Larry (an essential Chris Elliott). Phil is fed up with just about everything and lets us know it in what is still one of Bill Murray’s best performances to date. Murray rose to fame as a lovable wise-ass, his knowing smirk one of the key features of Saturday Night Live during his time on the show. He often plays the type who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is all-to-ready to play anyone as a fool. People tend to become his straightmen, willy-nilly. That’s very much the case here and his chagrin at getting stuck in Punxsutawny due to that blizzard is palpable enough. Then we get to experience the ultimate bummer when he realizes—with a range of emotions, from panic to glee to depression to delusions of grandeur, and, finally, acceptance and humility—that he is stuck in the same day, possibly forever.

Do you ever feel that other people are little wind-up robots doing and saying what they’ve been programmed to say and do? Well, that’s very much the case here as Phil gets to alter the script only so much. Everyone else is more or less in a state of repetition compulsion while he gets to be the free agent, within the limitations of the day and place. We get glimpses of just how far afield Phil can take his furloughs from his assignment: since he remembers what happens on each successive Groundhog Day and everyone else experiences the day for the first time, he’s able to lift huge sums of money, seduce a local woman as though he knew her in high school, joy ride without fear of lasting reprisal, eat like there’s no consequences to indulging his sweet tooth, and, when it all becomes too much, try offing himself in a variety of ways. He also begins to take an interest in Rita, who he initially brushed off as too lightweight and goody-goody.

There follows the kind of sequences that make this a good date movie too. Everyone knows those “first date” blunders that some never manage to recover from. As when Phil sneers at Rita’s major in college (French poetry) or when, winning near the goal on a few tries thanks to spontaneous laughter on her part, he tries vainly to recreate “the moment.” This is where the subtlety of the script becomes apparent: how many ways can Phil be foiled in trying to fuck Rita? Every way possible until, finally, he actually becomes, by befriending everyone and acting as an agent of mercy in any situation that could prove harmful for others on that day in that town, the kind of guy she could fall in love with. At which point Phil is no longer the Phil we started with. It’s as if Sisyphus has to keep rolling that damned rock up the hill till he figures a few things out.

Along the way there are many, many replays that repay the attention, so much so that the film becomes “one of those movies”: the kind that gets referenced in general interaction, its lines and situations applicable to the business of living “stuck in the same place where nothing you did makes any difference.” At one point, Phil, driven to despair by his inability to manipulate Rita—even after he sincerely tries to earn her affection—gives us the mantra for February: “It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be gray, and it’s going to last you the rest of your life.”

The setting of the film, the homey Illinois town that stands-in for Punxsutawny, looks better as time goes on. It’s a bit like another town we revisit each year, where Jimmy Stewart has a dark night of the soul on Christmas eve, which means it has average people doing average things with an average degree of acceptance of their place in life. Phil is the one who doesn’t get it, until he does. One of my favorite scenes along that journey is a brief shot of him sitting in the diner reading in the afternoon. It’s a glimpse of the kind of thing I associate with being in grad school (the film was released not long after I took my generals), where a good part of the day is spent reading and the world around you tends to become a warm cocoon of people doing their appointed tasks. In the scene, Murray looks up and looks around with that exact feeling of gratitude to the here and now that I recall feeling a few times. And one of the books on the table is Ulysses by James Joyce, who just happened to be born on February 2nd.

And that, I suppose, is a way of saying that this is a literate comedy too. Something that was hard enough to find after the run Woody Allen had of excellent films to the end of the Eighties. At one point, Phil, newly inspired in his groundhog coverage, cites Chekhov, and later learns to play Rachmaninoff. That detail alone suggests how long, in terms of his experience, this purgatory lasts. If you ever need a figure for what it means to atone, this film should do it.

There’s great support for Murray too—from McDowell of the girl-next-door charm, the occasional hot pout and the leonine hair, to Chris Elliott’s smart-alecky sidekick, to Stephen Tobolowsky as the unforgettable Ned “Needle-nose” Ryerson, a “giant leech” in the form of a rather squirrelly insurance salesman, to Bill’s older brother Brian Doyle-Murray as the fond Mayor of the town, to a cameo by Ramis as a doctor consulted early on, to Dan Pasquesi as a timid shrink, to Marita Geraghty as the perennial high-school girl, Nan-cy, Nan-cy Tay-lor!, and don’t overlook an early sighting of Michael Shannon, Oscar-nominated actor (for Revolutionary Road), as Fred, the guy so buzzed about getting Wrestle-mania tickets.

Warm, funny, quirky, with enough fed-uppedness for just about any February, Groundhog Day is certainly one of the best comedies of the Nineties, one of the best “feelgood movies” of all time, and a big step along the way for Bill Murray from playing snarky, fatuous guys—for which Ghostbusters is still the best—to playing guys “with soul,” as for instance in Wes Anderson movies. In fact, that transition is the point of this movie.

50 Since 1970

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