Should I Watch..? 'Groundhog Day'
What's the big deal?
Groundhog Day is a comedy fantasy film released in 1993 and was directed and co-written by Harold Ramis. The film depicts a curmudgeonly weatherman caught in a time-loop, forcing him to relive the same day over and over again. The film stars Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott. Initially, the film received a warm response from critics and was a minor hit at the box office with US takings just under $71 million. However, the film became a cult smash with the term 'groundhog day' now meaning any recurring event or situation in a cyclical fashion. It is now regarded as one of the best comedy films ever made and was added to the US National Film Registry in 2006 for its cultural, historical or aesthetic significance. It also inspired a stage adaptation in 2016. Genuinely, I also thought I'd already written my review!
What's it about?
Local news weatherman Phil Connors, dreaming of being picked up by a major network, assures his Pittsburgh viewers that a blizzard will miss western Pennsylvania. Due to report from the town of Punxsutawney the next day to cover the town's Groundhog Day celebrations, Phil travels to the town with cameraman Larry and his producer Rita Hanson with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man on Death Row. Shooting a bitter and cynical piece for the station, Phil returns to his hotel intending to check out and head straight back to Pittsburgh.
However, he soon finds that he is unable to leave town after the blizzard he spoke about arrives and forces all the roads nearby to be closed. Going to sleep in a foul mood, he wakes up the next day and slowly realises that it is Groundhog Day again - everyone says the exact same things as yesterday and events that happened happen all over again. Confused and traumatised, Phil is prepared to do anything to escape not just Punxsutawney but the strange time-loop he finds himself trapped in.
Larry the cameraman
Danny Rubin & Harold Ramis*
Release Date (UK)
7th May, 1993
Comedy, Fantasy, Romance
What's to like?
Murray has been in plenty of films in his career but for my money, he has simply never been better than he was in Groundhog Day. His world-weary cynicism is perfect for the role of a man stuck in his own personal purgatory, struggling to grasp what is happening and how to escape. The brilliance of the script also helps him - while it initially plays the set-up for laughs, it later becomes an affecting romantic tale about redemption and a musing on the nature of immortality. It's much deeper and more rewarding than many comedies you might have seen - Murray's demented groundskeeper in Caddyshack feels like a long time ago.
But first and foremost, this is a comedy and Murray carries the film with ease. Even basic things like waking up to hearing Sonny & Cher once again or his reaction to stepping into the same icy puddle is hilarious but I have to credit the rest of the cast. Essentially having to replay the same scenes throughout the film with metronomic precision couldn't have been easy but they somehow manage it. But this is Murray's showcase - a brilliantly written comedy that makes you genuinely care about its hopeless hero, drawing sympathy and scorn in equal measures as he begins to live a life free from any consequence.
- Surprisingly, the film wasn't actually filmed in Punxsutawney but in Woodstock in Illinois - about fifty miles from Murray's hometown of Wilmette. There is a plaque on the building where Phil is constantly accosted by Ned Ryerson and another where Murray steps into the puddle.
- The piece that Phil learns on piano - Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody On A Theme By Paginini" - is played by Murray himself who doesn't read music but learnt the tune off by heart. Incidentally, that same piece of music features in another time-related fantasy film - 1980's Somewhere In Time.
- Not only was Murray going through a divorce at the time but he was also bitten twice by the groundhog during filming. His behaviour was described by the film's crew as erratic and it led to the abrupt end of Murray and Ramis' friendship for many years.
What's not to like?
Trying to find faults with a film as wonderful as Groundhog Day is a bit like demanding a full refund from your airline after the stewardess drops your glass of champagne into your business-class seat. No-one cares that this film has an overly sugary ending or that this is the film that MacDowell has hung her career on (she wouldn't star as a lead in a successful film after 1996's Multiplicity). I'm not even bothered about the reasons behind the existence of the time-loop, which are never explained or even hinted at. It just is and it works fine for me. It doesn't even ruin I Got You, Babe as a song although I have refrained from playing it on my radio show, just in case!
Not being overly familiar with the Groundhog Day ceremony, the oddness of it helps to bring you into Phil's way of thinking at the beginning. But as he gets increasingly desperate and suicidal, you're actually with him all the way and it even makes you wonder what you would do in that situation. Crucially, the film never stops being funny and doesn't get too dark exploring the more unpleasant side of things in a world without consequence.
Should I watch it?
An instantly iconic comedy classic, Groundhog Day offers not just a seasoned comic performer in the role of a lifetime but also a deeper, more satisfying experience than countless other comedy films. Murray's finest hour remains one of the outright funniest films I've ever seen - witty, intelligent, inspired and enjoyable for the whole family. In fact, I might go and watch it just now...
Great For: Bill Murray fans, physicists, religious groups, the town of Punxsutawney, anyone looking for a first-rate comedy
Not So Great For: anyone caught in a time-loop (you know who you are!), grumpy weathermen, anyone caught in a time-loop...
What else should I watch?
Time-loops are normally used as the set-up for fantastical action films or convoluted horrors flicks. I certainly can't think of another time-loop comedy but films like Looper, Edge Of Tomorrow and Source Code are intriguing action thrillers that offer more than simple bangs for your buck. However, if you're looking for a time-loop film that really messes with your mind, I have to go with the ridiculously good Donnie Darko which sees Jake Gyllenhaal try to prevent the end of the world in a little over four weeks but also battle the chilling apparition known as Frank, a monstrous giant bipedal rabbit.
Despite occasional ructions with some of his fellow cast and crew, Murray has slowly developed an enviable career over the last forty-something years. His filmography includes Golden Globe nominations for films like Ghostbusters, Rushmore and Hyde Park On Hudson while his most acclaimed performance came in Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation as Bob Harris, an actor shooting a commercial in Tokyo who bonds with Scarlett Johansson's lonely newly-wed.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox