Monday, January 26, 2009

Groundhog Day

On the DVD commentary for Groundhog Day (1993), director Harold Ramis rather grumpily allows as how Bill Murray said it was probably the best work he or Ramis would ever do.

No kidding. Groundhog Day outshines Murray’s and Ramis’ other movies like the sun outshines the North Star. And that’s not the half of it: This deceptively modest little rom-com is one of the best movies anyone made in the second half of the 20th century.

Ramis, who wrote the script for Animal House, still specializes in that antiauthoritarian, frat-boy/stoner brand of baby boomer comedy that was invented by him and his pals at the National Lampoon. Movies like Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters have a kind of tossed-off, anything-goes vibe that’s appealing. But they’re allergic to emotion, and they can be tiresomely manic and boyishe, like watching a hyperactive kid as he gets all wound up.

On the other extreme, Murray can be too still in the movies. For about two decades starting in the late ‘70s, he played the coolly ironic, often conniving eye of the storm in kinetic boomer comedies. But the more fans warmed up to his work, the cooler he seemed to grow. In time, the bemused distance he projected from nearly everything else infected his acting as well. Casual to the point of contempt, he began to let his deadpan smirk congeal into a mask.

During the height of his popularity, a lot of Murray’s movies were written and/or directed by Ramis. But no other was like Groundhog Day, the seventh movie they made together. (It was also the last, since they clashed over how philosophical the movie should be. Murray wanted to go more serious; Ramis insisted on sticking to comedy.)

The very funny and elegantly simple script is the story of an arrogant, emotionally walled-off TV weatherman, Phil Connors (Murray). Phil goes to podunk Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog Day, along with his long-suffering cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott) and his new producer, Rita (Andie McDowell). They’re supposed to cover the ritual emergence of the weather-predicting rodent and then go home to Pittsburgh, but a blizzard snows them in overnight.

When he wakes up, Phil finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. What’s worse, only he remembers the other Groundhog Days. Everyone else keeps living each new day as if it were the first.

But sometime in the past few years, Groundhog Day has slipped into a seat beside other American classics--movies like The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life–about people who learn to appreciate what they have only after they’re pulled out of their lives and into an alternate reality.

A nicely edited cascade of scenes shows Phil waking up to his situation, going through a range of emotions based on Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross’ five stages of grief and cooking up inventive ways to pass the endlessly looping time. Eventually, though we don’t know whether it’s been months or years, he’s climbs out of his own head and connects with other people.

His motivation is Rita, the moral center of the film. McDowell is good without being pious, radiating a skeptical intelligence and a palpable warmth that help keep the movie grounded. At first, Phil just wants to trick Rita into bed, but after spending countless days with her, he falls in love. And once he can see her generosity and warmth, he can start to emulate it, becoming a better man.

Both Murray’s snark and the sensitivity that lurks way, way below his smarmy surface are used here to perfection, for once. Phil is fun to watch when he’s being gleefully nasty, plunging daggers into people who barely know they’ve been nicked. He’s even more interesting when he starts to feel vulnerable. And when he finally delivers a couple of romantic speeches, his hard-won vulnerability makes them more affecting than they would have been from an easier mark.

The soundtrack makes witty and memorable use of a Sonny and Cher song, the Pennyslvania Polka, a bluesy theme song cowritten by Ramis and sung by Delbert McClinton, and old standards like “You Don’t Know Me.” The dialogue is memorable too, full of the kind of snappy lines you don’t hear much in movies these days. (“Don’t you have some kind of line you keep open for emergencies, or celebrities?” Phil demands, when he first realizes he’s trapped in Punxsutawney. “I’m both! I’m a celebrity in an emergency.”)

Screenwriter Danny Rubin is a Buddhist, and he wrote Phil’s journey as a metaphor for reincarnation. But Rubin and Ramis, who reworked the script before shooting it, slip in the movie’s messages and meditations unobtrusively, leaving you to discover them for yourself.

This lovely little story illustrates a message so basic it’s central to all the world’s great religions, not to mention the concept of secular humanism: Being a mensch is its own reward, since being good to your neighbors makes you part of the neighborhood, and we all want to be part of a community. And that makes Groundhog Day a good fable for this Irony Age.

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