“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
I’m always interested in movies with cool concepts based around patterns or rules. Maybe something supernatural, often horrific, puts a set of humans in some strange state of being. In my discussion of 12 Angry Men, I related this type of plot to horror movies like Saw or Nine Dead which have one setting and are psychological in nature. I find this kind of stuff fascinating, where directors get to explore these crazy what-if scenarios. Groundhog Day is perhaps the most famous movies in this category. As Phil Connors lives the same day over and over again, we get to think about some really neat possibilities, and the concept is explored really well, making for a fine movie as a result.
Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a weatherman and absolute jerk who travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual emerging of the groundhog. After a relatively uneventful and dismal day, Phil wakes up bake in Punxsutawney to find that he is reliving the same day again. Then he wakes up to find that he is constantly reliving Groundhog Day, starting at 6AM. Over the course of the film, you see Phil live out wild scenarios and fantasies to exploit this phenomenon, while eventually deciding to make changes in his life to better himself, falling in love with his coworker Rita (played by Andie MacDowell) and becoming a more altruistic person.
The biggest success of Groundhog Day is perhaps its balance. One could go in a very dark, existential direction with the script, portraying the agony of Phil Connors forced to live out the time loop again and again. The film could also have gone far more comedic, highlighting parallels between the days and the silly antics Connors could get himself into by knowing how each day unfolds. There is also heavy romantic potential and the implications of the time loop on this romance. Fortunately, Groundhog Day manages to juggle all of these things, spending significant time exploring each of them. The movie never feels dark enough to really bring you down as an audience, but the comedy and romance are subdued enough to really dig into the time loop concept. You see Connors learning skills such as speaking French, sculpting ice, and learning the piano, but you also see him attempt suicide and go on reckless adventures. Once he finally lives out the perfect day of altruism and real human connection, he’s allowed to continue living, suggesting that he had finally learned his lesson.
I had seen this film when I was younger, but giving it another watch helped me appreciate the wit and talent of the creative team. Director Harold Ramis, typically known for his comedies, displays a deep understanding of the strengths of the script and highlights them accordingly. The cuts between parallel moments (such as Murray repeatedly being slapped by MacDowell) are highly effective, and the repetition of moments is sharp and amusing. Ramis also finds plenty of time for the little things, reveling in fun moments such as the smashing of the alarm clock and its immediate resurgence the next day. As an audience, we get a focused but playful view of the story that helps us smile amidst the dark subject matter.
While I prefer his work alongside Wes Anderson, Bill Murray still brings impressive work to the role of Phil Connors. His grumbling cynicism is perfect for the part, particularly early in the film, and his transition into a changed man is spot on. This is probably Murray’s most well-known role aside from Ghostbusters, likely because it’s a film that really captures his earlier style of acting. He hits the comedy in a smart way while maintaining the dark discomfort that comes along with the character. The rest of the performances are pretty standard, with MacDowell doing fine work as the romantic interest, perhaps limited more by the script than by her talent in what her character is able to achieve. Strong supporting roles are important for the film as well, with both Chris Elliot and Stephen Tobolowsky garnering some laughs in their own comedic respects.
Far too many films take an interesting concept and really drop the ball. The script is often weak and resorts to cliché plots tied around the concept instead of marinating in it, or the director gets too caught up in some grand idea that there isn’t room for the film to breathe. Groundhog Day is the fairly rare exception where an interesting idea is wonderfully executed, exceeding expectations for what an audience would predict. With a well-cast lead and strong creative vision, Groundhog Day remains a classic of 90s film and continues to delight both critics and general audiences alike.
Films Left to Watch: 943