When it comes to consensus favorites, I hold to the following theory: If I like it and most don’t, I’m right and they’re wrong, but if I don’t care for it but most love it, then I buy it years later and give it another chance. There have been mixed results on the latter half. Chinatown (1974) was a resounding success: a great movie I just didn’t quite get. Citizen Kane (1941) just sucks, they’re wrong on that one. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) waits in the wings-deep, deep in the wings—for its second shot. But today I revisit that favorite of movie buffs and duffs, Groundhog Day (1993). I hold my life in my hands when I mention my ambivalence to this movie. Some say this is their absolute, unnostalgic, number one film of all time. It just always struck me as run of the mill. Roger Ebert said, in his Great Movies review, “Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation. But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points.” Let’s take a look.
Clouds. Polka. Local Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) has to go down to Punxsutawney the fourth year in a row to see Phil the groundhog say whether there will be six more weeks of winter or not. He’s joined by the frustratingly cheerful and genuine Rita (Andie MacDowell) and the basically harmless cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). After the day goes blandly, Phil (human Phil, that is) is ready to get to bed and go home the next day. But he can’t. He wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day…again. No matter what he does, he wakes up at 6:00am to the sound of Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe” and the most pointless holiday America ever made up. It’s a rough existence. Everyone does the exact same thing every morning and Phil comes to learn a lot about the people of Punxsutawney and his co-workers.
So I was half right and half wrong. The movie is fantastically funny and poignant and thoughtful and fully realized. Perfect. At about the 42 minute mark onwards. Up to that point, writer/director Harold Ramis either didn’t quite know what he (with Danny Rubin for story and co-writer) had or didn’t know how to set his premises correctly. In the later Groundhog Days, Ramis decided we were smart enough to decipher when Phil was playing according to his accumulated knowledge and when he was ‘in the moment.’ I can think of no other explanation for spending 40% of the movie setting up that Phil is kind of a douche. What’s more, his douchery was less clever than it needed to be. A very clever mean person is funny, but Phil is more into mockery than seems appropriate for a local weatherman.
The writing is very good. The comedy, after the 42 minute mark, made me laugh in a way I hope never to be observed by another human. You know I start with a quote on these and I wrote down…counting…thirteen lines I thought were the best in the movie. As for plot, the movie played out roughly how I imagine I would respond to the situation. First I’d play a little roguish, then I’d play pretty naughty, and then I might try something flat out evil. But that gets boring. It’s boring to be bad. Being good is much more challenging. Being good includes reading all those books you haven’t read, learning to play the piano, saving people from needless pain—“What do you say? What do you say? You have never thanked me!”—that’ll fill the day much better than coming up with new bad things to do. With that kind of vehicle, I was ready to laugh.
I’ll say that for a 90’s comedy, this movie looks pretty good (cinematography from John Bailey). The slow motion changing of the clock from 5:59 to 6:00 is visually ambitious. Twenty years later, it does create some expectations for further sharp camera work (which doesn’t happen), but I’m willing to take that one moment as a solid plus. And the musical selections were excellent. Good work guys, good work.
According to the special features—I watched the 15th Anniversary edition DVD (I couldn’t justify the Blu-Ray to myself)—the movie was universally adored by the religious and spiritualists of all stripes. Each thought that the movie was made for them by people of their faith or creed. “That’s exactly what [insert philosophy] is all about.” But like any good myth, this is a universal and timeless story about the meaningful life. To reach that kind of commonality while being original is incredibly rare. As Ebert astutely pointed out, it is a reference point like Cinderella or Icarus that we can now call upon. The film could be remade again and again to describe whatever goal you wish to set. From my perspective, what the movie is objectively about is that a life without personal connection is meaningless. Without people around you remembering what you did yesterday and hope to do tomorrow, it’s all for nothing. So get out there people, start making connections. Says the guy writing a review of a twenty year old movie on a Saturday night.