Humans are strange creatures. Somewhere along the line, we decided that we needed to commemorate our important events. Then, we decided to commemorate lesser events. And now we’ve reached the point where we basically commemorate anything. Frankly, it’s kind of moronic. I mean… Citizenship Day? Arbor Day? Secretary’s Day? I’m sorry, I meant Administrative Professional’s Day? Have we seriously reached the point as a society that we now need to be politically correct about the pointless days that we senselessly put on our calendars? I’m amazed we haven’t started celebrating National Daily Moisturizer Day, or Accordion Folder Appreciation Day.
Look, don’t get me wrong — I love Christmas, Thanksgiving and Independence Day, as well as all the other days that enable to me to sit at home and drink in the middle of the the week. Hell, I work in state government — I get days off you people have never heard of. Bunker Hill Day? Got it. Patriots Day? Yup. Evacuation Day, better known as St. Patrick’s Day? Top of the motherfuckin’ morning to ya. But none of this changes the fact that it’s idiotic, this need of ours to attach insipid, meaningless labels to arbitrary days of the year.
All of which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to Groundhog Day. In many ways, Groundhog Day is the most idiotic of them all. For some inane reason on February 2, in various cities in the United States and Canada, we drag a tubby, ugly, bloated guinea-pig-looking varmint out of a hole, and arbitrarily decide that if Bucktooth McFatass (sorry, I meant Punxsutawney Phil) sees his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter. I don’t know who thought it up, and I don’t care. Groundhog Day is without question the stupidest goddamn idea in the long and varied history of stupid goddamn ideas. Worse yet, it’s this big to-do where a bunch of old goats dress up like it’s the 19th century, and I still don’t get the damn day off. Look, if we’re going to make a production out of something, at least let me sleep late. Otherwise, you’re wasting my time. Because that’s what Groundhog Day is: a colossal waste of time. Well, except for one little thing …
Groundhog Day, the movie. If there is one warm, shining light to come out of that most asinine of days, regardless of whether that porky marmot sees his shadow, it’s this movie. Filmed in 1993 and directed by Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Caddyshack), Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as a crude, obnoxious misanthrope who for some unexplainable reason is doomed to live the same day (Groundhog Day, obviously) over and over, until he learns to give up his selfish, egotistical ways and learn to be a better person. To those who haven’t seen it, the plot sounds pretty inane and contrived, and in many ways it’s both of those things. Groundhog Day is not exactly groundbreaking cinema. Yet, every time it comes on cable, I find myself drawn to it. That is the power of Bill Murray, who owns this movie completely.
Murray plays Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman who pretty much hates everything around him. For the past three years, he’s been assigned to go to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival. And so it is that Phil and his co-workers — cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and producer Rita (Andie McDowell) — descend upon bucolic little Punxsutawney to watch Punxsutawney Phil the Groundhog decide the fate of America’s weather future. Connors hates everything about the town and spends much of his idle time proving to himself just how superior he is via a variety of smug comments, snide digs and much rolling of the eyes. Rita plays the free-spirited darling who Phil (the guy, not the hog) finds himself inexplicably drawn to. On his first day there, he runs into a variety of characters who he has nothing but disdain for — old high school alum Ned (Stephen Tobolowsky), the town hobo, the wait staff at the local diner, and many others. Despite all of their exuberance and friendliness, he can’t stand any of them. Then suddenly, the bizarre plot device kicks in, and Connors wakes up to the same day, again and again and again.
Watching Murray’s initial reactions to his seemingly eternal predicament is half the fun. He starts out confused and terrified, and then moves through a range of emotional responses from completely deranged to grim acceptance to downright gleeful. At first, he celebrates this consequence-free existence by stealing cars, seducing women, or robbing banks. Once he’s done living out these fantasies of excess, and his efforts to seduce Rita have repeatedly failed, he tries simply killing himself (and in one brilliant sequence, the town’s most famous groundhog along with him). When suicide fails, he turns to trying to learn more about Rita in an effort to woo her. Of course, in the process of doing so, he inevitably learns more about himself.
Murray has always been a master of playing the sardonically flawed and slightly unhinged man, be it in exaggerated fashion (Ghostbusters’ Peter Venkman), or the more somber, honest portrayals (Lost In Translation’s Bob Harris or Rushmore’s Herman Blume). Groundhog Day is no different. Whether he’s lamenting fate’s choice for him (“I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over and over?”), saving the life of a young boy (“What do you say? Huh? You never thank me!”), or just learning about all of the day’s events, he’s wonderful to watch.
Over the course of the film, everything about him changes. The way he looks, the way his face reacts to people, his body language. I’m consistently amazed at Murray’s subtle mannerisms — it’s what enables him to be so wry and deadpan, yet still convey a wealth of information about his character. By the end of the film, he is spending his day rushing around the town, doing as many good deeds as he can, and it shows on his face — the warmth it conveys when he’s successful, and the sadness when he fails. Contrasted to the beginning of the film, where he is nothing but acerbic jokes, frowns and sarcasm, it really is something of a revelation. One of the things that make this transition work is the lack of the derivative, epiphanous moments that plague most movies in the “people can change” genre of romantic comedy. Instead the change is gradual, taking endless iterations of this same day for him to evolve into the man he wants to be. There’s no way to tell how many times he lives the day over again, but given that by the end he speaks French, and is both a talented pianist and ice sculptor, one can only imagine.
Groundhog Day is hard to call a classic — it’s not particularly quotable like many of Murray’s other roles, it lacks the depth of Lost In Translation or Broken Flowers, nor is it as maniacally funny as Ghostbusters (my personal favorite) or Quick Change. It is at times cloying, obvious and in many ways trite. And yet, due to Murray’s ample skills and McDowell’s plucky charm, it works. It’s written and directed so that you can grasp the eternity of this single day, while maintaining a sense of dry wit throughout it. Maybe I’m just not as hard-hearted as I think I am, but every time I see it, it makes me grin. There are plenty of movies that are funnier or more complex, but none of them are quite like Groundhog Day. So, if you’re idly drunk and looking for a way to celebrate Grenadian Independence Day, you could do far worse, but not much better.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him wasting his time at Uncooked Meat.
Groundhog Day / TK
Film Reviews | February 8, 2008 | Comments ()