Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Deja Viewing

Film: Groundhog Day
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Early in the film Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) asks a couple of drunks in a bowling alley how they would react if every day was exactly the same and nothing they did mattered or changed anything. It’s a real question in this film because this is the story of Phil Connors doing exactly that.

The film takes place, naturally enough, on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA, the “weather capital of the world,” called such because it is the home of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog that determines whether or not we will have an early spring or six more weeks of winter. This year, allegedly, there was no shadow, which means an early spring. That’s great, except that it also means that all of this snow (we got dumped on like much of the country) will melt quickly, which causes its own problems.

Regardless, Phil Connors is a weatherman in Pittsburgh and has journeyed to the little town to get footage of the festival. Accompanying him are his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott) and his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell). Phil is a bastard, a prima donna, and unpleasant to everyone he thinks beneath him, which is essentially everyone. When a blizzard hits on the way back to Pittsburgh and the trio is stranded in Punxsutawney for another night, strange things start happening to Phil. He wakes up, and it’s Groundhog Day all over again. For him, the calendar has stopped, and he is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

We aren’t told how many Groundhog Days Phil has to live through. There are more than 30 different days in the movie, but certainly it numbers into the tens of thousands at the very least, based on the skills that Phil has by the end of the film (he can, for instance, play the piano as if he had practiced for years despite starting the film with no skills at all).

Slowly, as Phil starts to go through the same day again and again, we begin to understand the rhythm of this particular day, and we see Phil starting to learn everything that is going on around him. He learns what happens to other people on this day, and starts to develop a sort of relationship with the town and the people around him, knowing what is going to happen before it does.

This movie is smart for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is that Phil behaves exactly as many of us would. Initially confused by the repeat day, Phil starts to figure out that every day begins as a clean slate, which means he has unlimited freedom to act exactly as he wishes. He uses this freedom to explore his darker side initially, stealing money from an armored truck, finding out everything he can about attractive women one “day” and bedding them the next, and baiting the local cops into hunting him down and throwing him in jail only to discover every morning that he begins once again back in his bed and breakfast room with the same day looming over him.

It also heads into very dark territory in that Phil becomes so distraught over his situation and his unchanging day that he begins killing himself in various methods. He is, in short order, killed in a car accident, electrocuted, run over by a truck, and smashed on impact after a long fall. These are fun scenes despite what is happening, none so entertaining as his kidnapping of the groundhog, a high-speed chase with the rodent at the wheel of the truck, and a drive off a cliff into a quarry. Despite all of these attempts on his own life, Phil once again awakens every morning at 6:00 to the sound of Sonny and Cher singing “I’ve Got You, Babe” and the comment that once again it is Groundhog Day on the radio.

It’s in the third act that Phil discovers what he should really be doing with his time. After wasting a great deal of this sort of eternal experience, Phil begins to finally improve himself. He sets his sights on Rita and fails miserably to win her. The reason is subtle—he’s trying too hard to appear like the man he thinks Rita wants instead of actually becoming the man that she deserves. At times, this is almost painful. He gets close to Rita, knowing that when the morning comes she’ll have forgotten everything and thus he must make her love him immediately. When he gets close one night, he spends the next night trying to duplicate exactly what happened before, moving from position to position in a snowbank to find exactly where he was previously to make her react the same way, and he can’t quite do it. And so the third act of the film is all about Phil overcoming this existential burden of endless time and realizing that with so much time on his hands, he can become anything he’d like, including the man who deserves a woman like Rita.

It’s saying a lot to call this Bill Murray’s best film, but it ranks in his top several. His portrayal of Phil Connors is flawless for many reasons. First among these is that Phil Connors grows more than any Murray character; he begins the film as a truly loathsome human being, self-centered, arrogant, stupid, annoying, and mean. As the film progresses, he becomes first pitiful and pitiable, and eventually becomes someone to be admired and someone for whom we as the audience will legitimately hope to see succeed.

The film is also helped by excellent performances from the rest of the cast. Specifically worth mentioning are Chris Elliott, Andie MacDowell, and Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson, a former high school mate of Phil turned annoying insurance salesman.

I like this film for a lot of reasons. It’s a great comedy and has several really funny moments. I like that many of these bits of comedy are also very dark. Groundhog Day goes to some very dark places in the middle, and this is a good thing. All comedy starts and ends on someone’s pain—without pain of some sort, there is no real comedy, and Phil’s pain is very real and thus very funny. This is a deep an interesting film worthy of watching more than once—and I’m not being cute by saying that about a film that is essentially the same thing over and over again.

At its heart, this is a movie of great spirituality, either religiously or secularly, depending on your point of view. It’s a good enough film to handle both religion and lack of same, and still handle the idea of personal worth and improvement for its own sake.

Why to watch Groundhog Day: A completely original comedy.
Why not to watch: Déjà vu all over again and again and again.


  1. I'm glad this movie made The List. Did you count how many Murray brothers were in it? I know there are at least two. Brian Doyle Murray is Punxsutawney Phil's handler, and that other Murray brother-- forget his name-- is "Pork Chop."

  2. It's this sort of movie that restores a little faith in The List after watching a real stinkbomb, a sort of "the editors are actually hip enough to have enjoyed this" moment. However, for what could be a simple comedy, this one takes some interesting paths to get there.

    "Pork Chop," as you call him, is not a Murray, although he does look like one. He's an actor named Ken Campbell.

  3. Really? I was sure he was one of the other Murrays. Well, damn. Maybe that's why I couldn't remember his name.

  4. I think this is your best headline so far :-)

  5. Believe it or not, I actually put a lot of thought into some of the titles. Not always, but sometimes.

  6. I believe it, they are often very clever!