Celebrating Groundhog Day

Why do we still celebrate the movie Groundhog Day, 16 years after it was first released?

Groundhog Day

Each February 2nd I perform a small ritual, and this one was no exception. I wake an hour earlier than usual, at 6am to be precise, and using my bedside clock radio I scan the radio airwaves. It doesn’t usually take long to find a station playing the 1965 hit I Got You, Babe by Sonny & Cher. That’s entirely appropriate, as it is Groundhog Day…

Such is the influence of what seems a relatively minor comedy film when it opened in 1993, the last in a chain of movies that had brought Billy Murray and Harold Ramis from Caddyshack, to Stripes and Ghostbusters (I & II) before this apparently low budget affair.

I’m sure reviewers at the time might have also pointed out that the theme of redemption is one that Murray himself explored five years earlier with Scrooged, and in this respect, audiences had already seen him being bad and then learning the error of his ways. Yet, there is something magical about this movie which gets right under the skin, in a way that Scrooged, for all its schmaltz and witty dialogue, can’t quite equal. Perhaps it’s the strength of the concept, or the deft execution, or the characters performances, but whatever happened on February 2nd, it’s stuck in our unconscious collective to be repeated endlessly.

For those who’ve been stuck in a burrow waiting for winter to end for the past sixteen years, the premise of this movie is frighteningly simple: Phil Connors is a selfish and self-loathing TV weatherman, played by Murray, who’s dispatched by his station with producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) to cover the annual festivities at the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. In this symbol of smalltown America, each February 2nd it’s predicted that Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog, will emerge from his burrow and if he can’t see his shadow then winter will soon end, but if he sees it and scurries back in, another six weeks of winter is due.

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Once they’ve covered the event in Connor’s uniquely cynical way, they all intend to return to Channel 9 in Pittsburgh, but bad weather forces them to stay in Punxsutawney overnight, which sets in motion an unusual turn of events. Phil wakes the next morning and it is again February 2nd, something that happens every morning for almost the entire movie’s running time.

The first time through the loop Phil is actually too hungover to accept that they’re really repeating everything, but it doesn’t take him long to realise that he’s trapped in exactly the same day, with the same events, over and over again. He is aware of his predicament while everyone else is oblivious to it, curiously.

At first the dark side of Phil’s character emerges as he realises there is little point playing by any rules when the day is reset at 6am, and we are treated to the same encounters that he has on subsequent cycles where he deals with things in an entirely different way. The limit of 24 hours also limits the sorts of relationships he can build, even with inside knowledge about everyone in the town. He tries to form a relationship with Rita, but with their wildly different personalities it’s an uphill struggle. Eventually, the loop starts to drive him to thoughts of suicide, and he steals the groundhog and kills himself, multiple times in different ways. Yet, he still wakes at 6am the next morning; whatever happens that day, it’s undone each morning.

The turning point comes when he explains his predicament to Rita while they’re in the diner, where he can tell her the names and backgrounds of everyone who lives there. They get on much better than before, and Phil decides to become the man she’ll fall in love with, irrespective of how many Groundhog Days it takes. This is the true payback part of the movie, where we see Murray doing lots of good things for people, knowing when they’ll hurt themselves or mishaps will happen. He also decides to better himself, learning foreign languages, reading extensively and even learning to play the piano. This will eventually lead to Rita falling in love with him, which breaks the spell and ends the loop.

In interviews, writer (together with Danny Rubin) and director/producer Harold Ramis admitted that in the original concept Phil was trapped for 10,000 days, but as presented in the movie he’s a resident of Punxsutawney for about ten years. He’s also talked about the creative process, which at times was fraught. Murray wanted the film to be more philosophical while Ramis was intent on making a comedy. The end result combines both sides of this dispute, and is possibly what makes it something special. These arguments became so heated that Ramis has said that he and Murray have never spoken since, although I’m unsure if this is now true, as they’ve both been recently working on Ghostbusters: the Video Game.

It’s disappointing that they’ve not cooperated on film together again, because Groundhog Day is arguably the best work of both, as the performance by Murray snaps brilliantly into the manically comic constructs of Ramis. Phil’s repeated encounters with old school friend, Ned Ryerson, underlines this perfectly; the early ones are all Ramis-scripted and the latter ones are entirely adlibbed by Murray, to hilarious effect. Ramis even gets himself a cameo as theneurologist, but it’s a fleeting appearance.

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Yesterday, I watched this entire movie once again, and it’s as fresh and imaginative as when I first saw it sixteen years ago. I can even accept that it has Andie MacDowell in it, even if in penance I now have to suffer her in those horrible L’Oreal ads, again and again. She’s not great, but this is Murray’s movie and she’s not so bad as to ruin it.

What watching it again also made me consider is that, since this film was made, the number of genuinely funny movies has been incredibly small. As a genre, the comedy movie is on its ass, and these were finer days for it. It stands proud as a demonstration of the exceptional comedy acting talent of Murray, the writing skills of Ramis and Rubin, and how a great idea should be committed to celluloid.

Each February 2nd I perform a small ritual, and this one was no exception. I wake an hour earlier than usual, at 6am to be precise…

2 February 2009