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Groundhog Day: Harold Ramis's It's a Wonderful Life
Groundhog Day is a surprising miracle of a movie, a funny, touching, inspiring experience, the It's a Wonderful Life for a more cynical generation. It's rare to watch a Hollywood movie and feel like you are watching something so original, and yet seemingly so simple that you wish you had thought of it yourself. "Groundhog Day" has even entered the lexicon as a shorthand for having to face the same mundane routine over and over.
In Groundhog Day, Murray again plays the familiar smug Murray character, this time as Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman with an exaggerated sense of importance ("There's a major network interested in me"). Forced to go to the small town of Punxutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day ceremony, Murray acts as if he superior to everyone around him, including his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliot), and the local townspeople ("They're hicks, Rita"). After doing a half-assed job covering the Groundhog Day ceremony, Phil is eager to get out of town, but is trapped by a blizzard that he failed to predict and must spend another night in the town.
The next morning when his alarm clock wakes him up, he hears the exact same song ("I Got You, Babe") and the exact same banter from the DJs, who again proclaim that it's Groundhog Day. Connors goes through his day seeing exactly the same people in the same places saying the same things. And then it happens again the next day. And the next.
Connors goes through a period of disbelief at this impossibility. It's a phase of disbelief familiar to us from time travel movies and indeed from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), where the George Bailey character spends a long time (too long) in denial that he is witnessing what the world is like without him.
Groundhog Day deftly avoids the tedium of repetition by using shorthand to show us small bits of subsequent days, rather than re-enacting all the scenes from day one. It also varies the sequence, sometimes showing the same moment from many days in quick montage sequences (as when Rita slaps Phil on many occasions for his flat-footed attempts to romance her).
Audiences really connect with this movie for many reasons. At one time or another, nearly everyone has felt like his or her life is just one boring routine ("It's all the same f-cking day, man!" as Janis Joplin once proclaimed), so we empathize with the Connors character despite his initial smugness. We also have fantasized about some of the freedoms Connors has from the time-warp, such as the lack of accountability that allows him to eat whatever he wants, punch the annoying Ned Ryerson in the face, gather knowledge about women in order to seduce them, drive his car on the railroad tracks, and defy the police with impunity. Because he always wakes up the next day with a clean slate, for a time Connors experiences a giddy feeling of freedom.
However, to the movie's credit, Connors grows bored with this false sense of freedom. During the course of Groundhog Day, Connors goes through phases resembling The Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The movie manages to make all of these phases both recognizable and funny, and the final acceptance phase is even inspiring.
Connors eventually comes to the conclusion that he must make the most of his time, which is infinite and limited at the same time (as in the Spanish expression that life is short, but it is wide). He learns piano and how to sculpt ice; he studies French, and utilizes his knowledge of what will happen on that day to serve the people of the town (instead of to seduce the women or rob the money truck). While earlier he had tried to woo Rita strictly for sex, later he is more interested in his pursuit of excellance and service to others.
Groundhog Day's timeloop bears a close resemblance to time travel stories, such as Back to the Future and countless others. But Ramis and Rubin cleverly avoid the main logical problem of the time travel genre: how is it possible that people go back in time and do things that affect the future? Does that suggest parallel universes, alternate time-lines, or what?
Groundhog Day avoids this issue, partially by ignoring it, and partly because the time loop is restricted to one day. Since each day is reset, there is somehow no chain of causality affecting other days: all the characters are refreshed each day, except for Connors, who starts over too, but importantly is able to carry over his memories and skills to the next day.
It is never explained how or why the time loop starts nor how it ends, but since any explanation would seem like a mere device anyway, this is probably the right decision by the filmmakers. If you think about it deeply, of course this is all impossible; but like most stories, Groundhog Day simply posits "What if?" and then "What next?" And despite the rational impossibilities of the situation, the similarities of Connors' experience to the daily human condition makes it more meaningful and inspiring than most Hollywood movies.
Despite the time warp, Groundhog Day clearly isn't sci-fi; it's more about the subjective human condition. We are all the prime actors in the dramas of our own lives; we carry our memories and skills across our days; and other people, while not so constant as in this story, often seem constant to us. We certainly have more control over our own behavior than that of others. And so the most effective way to influence other people is to treat them as we wish to be treated, as Connors eventually learns.
Groundhog Day resonates with people of many different religious faiths, because it shows a man trapped in a life situation that could be seen as heaven or hell, depending on his attitude. The infinite repeating of the days bears resemblance to the karmic cycle (though without karmic consequences affecting the next incarnation). It teaches us to be kind and to be excellent without also having to convince us of the existence of a particular type of godhead or dogma.
Near the end, when Connors has become excellent in every way and the Punxutawney people at the party thank him for all his good works, we are reminded of the final scene of It's a Wonderful Life, where the people descend on George Bailey's house and gush with gratitude over all that George has done for them. Connors, like Bailey, has learned that happiness compounds like interest when we share with other people rather than just seek our own superficial pleasures.
I didn't even want to see Groundhog Day when it was released in 1993, because the premise of repeating the same winter day over and over made the movie sound tedious. After some friends recommended it, I finally saw it on DVD years later. I liked it upon the first viewing, especially that the movie had an inspiring message, but it still felt a little thin. Despite the charm of the town, the film had an almost TV-like quality to it (this is partly a problem of watching movies on TV). And I've always had mixed feelings about the talents of Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot (though here they are at their best). Repeated viewings revealed the film's greater depth and humanity.
Is this the best performance of Bill Murray's storied career? It's probably a moot question. But unlike most Murray movies, Groundhog Day succeeds as both as comedy and a drama. So while his performance in Stripes is perhaps funnier (in a Groucho Marx way) and his roles in Lost in Translation or Rushmore show dramatic capability, Groundhog Day shows his full range. Aficionados of Bill Murray's sarcasm, facial expressions, wild and playful eyes, subtle mannerisms, and nuanced delivery will not be disappointed. And yet, when we see "Good Phil" in the final part of the movie, we see substantiation of Murray's fabled generosity and good spirit as well.
Groundhog Day shows us the transformation of the familiar smug Murray character into a man sincerely trying to be his best. Murray shows us here that he can really act, instead of "just" improvise hilarious bits of unpredictability. While the earlier Scrooged shows us a similar transformation in Murray's character, that movie too closely follows the template of Dickens' A Christmas Carol so the effect is less natural than here.
Groundhog Day is probably the high-point of Harold Ramis' equally impressive (if less well-known) career as well. Ramis was already a comedic cinematic giant before Groundhog Day, as co-writer and/or director of Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Stripes, and Ghostbusters, as well as a funny actor in his own right (I especially liked his peformance in Stripes). Ramis had an important hand in developing the Bill Murray persona, often working in the background as the adult supervision (writer/producer/director) that knew how to draw out the best from Murray's mercurial improvisational genius.
Groundhog Day represented the culmination of the Bill Murray - Harold Ramis partnership. Whereas their prior collaborations produced so many successful and beloved comedies (including Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters), these films were pure comedies that spent no effort on "message." Groundhog Day was an important milestone in their professional development, probably the best of their movies, though sadly their last one to date.
30 August 2012
See also: Bill Murray