Sunday, February 2, 2014

Groundhog Day (1993)

Director: Harold Ramis                                  Writer: Danny Rubin & Harold Ramis
Film Score: George Fenton                            Cinematography: Dean Semler
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott and Stephen Tobolowsky

It’s Groundhog Day . . . again. The lasting success of the film Groundhog Day belongs, in my mind, almost entirely to Harold Ramis. Some of the reasons are obvious, directing the film as well as writing the script with Danny Rubin, not to mention a cameo appearance as a doctor. But his role as a director is even more crucial that it might initially seem. For the reason why, we only have to look at Bill Murray’s previous film What About Bob. Frank Oz directed that film and, for all his entertainment experience, was not able to exert directorial control over his star. As a consequence, Murray ran roughshod over the production and the results were decidedly mixed. Ramis, on the other hand, had a long-standing relationship with Murray and from all accounts reigned him in, not only to make a better film but to make Murray a better actor. And the proof of that is in his later films where he plays his roles almost perfectly straight, an ironic comic who is funnier when he’s not doing crazy things.

The story begins with Murray as a weatherman sent to cover the famous Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the local Pittsburgh station. Along for the ride with him are his producer, Andie MacDowell, and cameraman Chris Elliott. The next morning at the event he makes a sarcastic report, goes to bed early and wakes up to the same radio show he heard the previous morning. Before too long, however, he realizes it actually is the previous morning. By the third morning of living the same day over again he is nearly desperate, but soon he comes to terms with the anomaly and begins to use the information to get what he wants, money and girls initially, but after those shallow desires have been fulfilled he realizes he would like to have a relationship with MacDowell that proves far more complicated to attain. Gradually he comes to understand all of the good he can do and it changes him for the better, and his static life along with it.

What really makes the film great is how clever the premise is, and most of the humor comes out of playing with that reality. One of the best sequences in the film is with the great Stephen Tobolowsky playing a former high school classmate of Murray’s, now an insurance salesman. The way that Ramis films the repeating days is extremely effective. The first three days are variations on the same sequence, establishing the pattern of the day, one that ends with a snowstorm that keeps the trio in Punxsutawney another night. After that, however, Ramis repeats particular scenes over and over to show the progression Murray goes through with each cast member. The sequence with MacDowell is particularly good, with Murray going to great pains to make a tiny bit of progress with her in every succeeding day, but even his patience eventually wears out and he never regains the momentum again.

Though the story is essentially a romantic comedy, it is also so much more than that. The comedic elements are precisely done and deliver a lot of laughs, but there is also a deep, philosophical element to the proceedings that tends to be overlooked. The second half of the film zips by at a pace where it’s easy to miss the subtext of what’s really going on. When Murray attempts to save the old man who dies every day, he actually spends years in order to become a doctor. He likewise spends years learning to play the piano, learning French, and helping as many people as he can. Like The Family Man, it’s only this selflessness that leads to the ultimate conclusion of the film. MacDowell is good as the other romantic lead, though not indispensable, and Chris Elliott has one of the only good film roles of his career. Groundhog Day is a film that works on many levels, all of them great, and is definitely one of my E List recommendations.

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