There are a number of movies I watch once a year just because. I don’t go too long without seeing Jaws (1975) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). I’m married to a X-Men and Harry Potter fanatic so those usually are seen annually. Citizen Kane (1941) gets watched more or less once a year. I never miss watching It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) around Christmas and every February 2, I watch Groundhog Day, the perfect comedy. This movie, that replays the same day over and over again, fails to get too familiar, still surprises and still makes me laugh.
“I make the weather!” cries Phil Connors (a never better Bill Murray), a bitter, sarcastic, nasty, unlikeable weatherman at a little station in Pittsburgh who believes he deserves more. He’s called on assignment for the fourth straight year to Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania to cover the Groundhog Festival on Groundhog Day. It’s an assignment he loathes, he takes it out on his cameraman (Chris Elliott) and makes demands of his sweet producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) who is thoroughly decent, completely competent and prepared to deal with egocentric talent like Phil. As soon as he delivers his sarcastic and half-baked report he’s ready to split town but he discovers something very disquieting. He can’t leave, not just Punxsutawny but February 2. He wakes up everyday, in his bed at his motel, on Groundhog Day just the same, but over again. Everyone else thinks it’s the first time around, only Phil realizes the record got stuck. At first, he naturally struggles with this, but then he realizes the potential of living without consequences while being able to anticipate every aspect of the day and uses them to his sleazy and base ambitions and eventually he grows to use his opportunity to be a better man.
The genius of Groundhog Day is certainly in Murray’s immaculate performance but much of the credit has to be given to the direction of Harold Ramis and the construction of the screenplay by Ramis and Danny Rubin. There would be plenty of chances to steer this movie in the wrong direction but the delight comes from the introduction of the mechanics of the day and playing with them as they are repeated. It also wisely refrains from explaining why these strange things are happening. Phil is, of course, horrified to find that this is happening, but he accepts it soon as so do we so we can get on to the laughing.
And there is plenty of laughter to be had. The funniest sequence in the movie comes near the middle when Phil, who has already shamelessly used his ability to learn something about a woman and then coming back again the next day (which is the same day) knowing exactly what to say to her, is turning his attentions to Rita. Through trial and error he is able to learn her favorite drink, her favorite toast, and even some French poetry. Watch Murray at all times and it’s impossible not to laugh. It’s also impossible to tell just how many times Phil has lived through Groundhog Day but it must be in the thousands. We see some of the days but not all and its fun to see little details that he must have picked up.
Murray is brilliant, able to turn us off with his jerk persona but not keep us too far away that we don’t accept him when he changes. He’s able to have us enjoy both his catharsis and his rock bottom. There’s a funny moment when he sits in his pajamas giving the questions to Jeopardy! even while the clue is being read to the delight and amazement of the geriatric group watching with him. Credit has to be given to Andie MacDowell as well who is the perfect straight man and foil and we fall in love with her as Phil does. It’s a bit thankless but the movie could fall apart if she isn’t right.
And that’s what makes Groundhog Day so miraculous, it has every opportunity to fail and it not only doesn’t, it remains durable for multiple viewings. The movie has a heart but also an edge and it’s so detail rich that you notice something new every time (for example, not this time but last year’s Groundhog Day, I noticed that the young newlywed groom who gets Wrestlemania tickets is played by Michael Shannon). It’s also completely satisfying as Murray turns into a person who knows every answer, every skill and every trick. “Maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe he’s not omnipotent he’s just been around a long time,” Phil reasons, which is quite good, but I’m not sure that’s the thesis of the movie, which I doesn’t strive to be much more than a funny morality story in the vein of A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life. It stresses that life is too important to go through it like a jerk. Of course, when the curse is lifted in the end and time continues for Phil, he won’t have the benefit of knowing the ensuing days like the back of his hand but that’s not what these stories are about, there’s a reason we don’t see George Bailey 10 years down the road, when some of the goodwill has worn off. It’s the same reason A Christmas Carol ends with “He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Fables are about the transition not the more difficult rest of the story, as Rita says to the annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson “Oh, let’s not spoil it.”
The opening of Groundhog Day gives the impression of floating through a blue sky while music that is never reused reminds me of Nino Rota’s Fellini scores. Invoking Fellini isn’t entirely out of place in this strange and funny story which also has tones of Bunuel, but that’s all high brow nonsense, this is a comedy of perfect construction and execution, and simply watching Murray drink that sweet vermouth, rocks with a twist is enough to justify Groundhog Day on a list of great films.