Groundhog Day - 30th Anniversary Review
Tell me, how would you feel if you had one day to relive over and over again, whether it’s the best day of your life, the worst day of your life, or just any day in general? What would you do with it? What if you had no control over it outside of what you can control? Would you want to see how much worse it could get? How about how much better it can be? The possibilities stemming from this unlikely phenomenon can create a whirlwind of ideas, opportunities, and reactions.
Well, on the heels of their previous success with Ghostbusters, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis gave it a whirl with Groundhog Day. And if you’re generally acquainted with what I asked you or have just seen it all over the place, it may be thanks to how this movie asked such questions.
The story revolves around Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, who set out to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to capture a live report on the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil’s, news on the forthcoming weather, foretold only by whether or not he sees a shadow. The human Phil, however, was just not in the spirit, for he always worried more about his appearance, especially on TV, and his distaste of Punxsutawney. At one point, Phil said he stayed in Punxsutawney a couple of years back and didn’t enjoy it in the slightest. What didn’t help was what happened when Phil, Rita, and Larry attempted to head home to Pittsburgh; they didn’t anticipate a big blizzard hovering over them. Because of this, it closed off the road they took to get home and shut down the power lines for a few days. So, the three crew members were forced to spend the night in Punxsutawney for the second night, much to Phil’s displeasure.
However, when Phil woke up the following morning, he caught on to something slightly peculiar. Even though it happened yesterday, everyone was going to Gobbler’s Knob to see the groundhog. Everyone kept saying it was Groundhog Day, even though it was yesterday, at least to Phil. Nonetheless, he still went through with his report with Rita and Larry, even if it was the second time. In short, Phil started feeling like the day he was experiencing was the same day he went through the day before. At first, he thought he was going crazy like he believed that everyone in Punxsutawney, down to his crew members, was doing what had already been done yesterday. But as he slept, woke up to the tune of “I Got You, Babe,” and did his daily things in Punxsutawney, he soon discovered that he was only reliving the same day over and over again.
Naturally, Phil had varying responses to this unforeseen phenomenon. At first, Phil freaked out over the possibility of him repeating the same day with no chance of a tomorrow in sight. Later, he embraced all the opportunities that came with such a repetition of the same day. But when that didn’t work for him, particularly with Rita, he contemplated taking his own life. However, even that didn’t work.
How would Phil ever get out of this time loop? Is there any way out? Or is he doomed to live like this for the rest of his life?
From what little I read about Murray and Ramis’ history, they started to trek through rocky terrain in their friendship, especially after the smash-hit success of Ghostbusters. They started growing more hostile to each other, and their creative points of view started clashing against one another. So, when they banded up to whip up this movie, they had different ideas about what creative direction should be practiced with Groundhog Day. Ramis wanted it to be a wholesome comedy, whereas Murray wanted it to be a dark comedy. Their disagreements became so severe that they strained Murray and Ramis’ friendship, leaving them to never speak to one another again for years.
But thanks to committed acting and directing, this movie pulled through, used each crew member’s talents to its advantage, and, in doing so, became rightfully regarded as an all-time classic.
Let’s start with Harold Ramis’ directing. Having been an established director before with films like National Lampoon’s Vacation and Caddyshack under his belt, Ramis played his hand with a full deck and exercised witty comedic turns of events to help shape the movie’s narrative direction in a way that remained natural and kept its funny bone healthy and strong. In addition, he did an excellent job paying close attention to the characters’ sense of movement, reactions, mannerisms, and correspondences to the jokes that played throughout the movie. And most of the time, they tied into the characters and how they did their thing in conjunction with them, just like Phil did.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the story. At first glance, it feels relatively straightforward. A weatherman goes to Punxsutawney, does the news, and then finds himself engaging in all kinds of humorous circumstances with the repetition of the same day he went through. That’s it.
But as the time loop continued, the movie did an excellent job of digging deeper into the basic ethics of the characters and the circumstances as you get more accustomed to their daily routines. Everything in this movie that happened because of the time loop ensured some semblance of digging to the core, either by the characters or the viewers watching this. So, for example, the time loop indulged Phil in getting to know Rita, the producer, better, along with Larry, the cameraman, and even the rest of the Punxsutawney community. And as Phil took advantage of the repeated day to know them from the inside out, he caught on to who they were, what they wanted, and what they aspired to be, and sought to make things right by them in any way he could.
As for the characters closely affiliated with Phil, let’s start with Larry, the cameraman. For most of the movie, he felt like your everyday, common-sensical guy who felt sickened by Phil’s general narcissism and pointed it out as such to Rita every time Phil engaged in another one of such habits. However – and I don’t want to give it away to you reading this – when you look closely at what he does when not carrying the camera around, you will notice, even in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, that he’s more like the pre-time-loop Phil than you’d think.
With Rita, she started as just your everyday producer who’s new to the reporting business. But, thanks to the time loop and Phil’s endless opportunities to get to know her, she gradually revealed more about herself and her desires, elevating her more realistic character into a sweet and generally surprising character with hidden layers that’d open our eyes to who she is on her own or with Phil on her side.
Ned Ryerson, Phil’s alleged high school buddy, was an excitable, animated guy who also wasn’t without surprises of his own. Judging from his personality and ways of speaking to people, he was potentially an awkward kid back in school. But it turned out, in the few scenes he shared with Phil, he jumpstarted some businesses encompassing a variety of insurance deals, including health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, almost everything. So I suppose that clues me into the hidden talents beneath the last person you’d suspect of expressing such talent.
In the case of the viewers, the time loop allowed us to dig deeper into Phil’s psyche. At the beginning of the movie, Phil was a narcissistic jerk who’s only more concerned about his professional appearance and dreaded associating himself with who he dismissed as lowlife folk like in Punxsutawney. He also thought that way about Rita, though his feelings for her would eventually have said otherwise. And as he went through each repetition of Groundhog Day, his reactions to it and the opportunities that came with it tested his character, allowing us to closely evaluate Phil for who he truly is underneath.
The more I analyze this, I can’t help but think of A Christmas Carol. Except, rather than being shown the past, present, and future events flashing before your eyes, it’s the repetition of the same day unfolding before your eyes that really cements the experience.
And fittingly enough, Bill Murray had experience acting as an Ebenezer Scrooge-type character before. Frank Cross from Scrooged, anyone? So, with this acting expertise, Murray slipped into Phil Connors’ psyche and allowed him to engage in his psychological readjustments the same way.
One thing that’s never addressed in the movie is what could’ve jumpstarted the time loop in the first place. There are so many enticing elements to this phenomenon that it invites questions about how this was all possible. How was the time loop going on the way it had? What forces could’ve been behind it? How did it occur on Groundhog Day? Why was Phil Connors subject to this endeavor? Why him when it could have applied to anyone? The closest thing the film came up with for an explanation was no more than a hunch from Phil’s end. He postulated that maybe he was just the butt of some cosmic joke, and the phenomenon was being inflicted on him for fun.
However, as further investigations of the story and circumstances clarified, it likely went on the way it did to teach Phil a lesson on his behavior as a weatherman and toward his peers and friends. So, even though the forces that be were making an example out of him, there may have been some benevolent factor behind this trippy phenomenon, like what the ghosts did to Ebenezer Scrooge.
It leads to what lends Groundhog Day its essential edge: the variations in its circumstantial elements. Because Phil would have relived the same day continuously, he may have been prone to react, respond, or work off it in any measure he could think of. And each method of response would’ve ignited a chain reaction that resulted in different presentations of situations depending on how he responded to it every time.
Sometimes, it’s out of frustration. Other times, it’s done out of experimentation. Gradually, it’s done out of opportunism. And later, once Phil caught on to what others wanted or needed, he decided to take matters into his own hands and arrange the best Groundhog Day possible.
As he relived his Groundhog Day, Phil grew to understand more about the people who lived there, from a woman named Nancy Taylor to Doris, the waitress, and Buster, the head of Punxsutawney. And his communications and activities with them gradually became touching once you see how much of a difference Phil can make, and has made, for them during his stay in Punxsutawney.
However, his experiences with the homeless man threw a curveball regarding his capabilities. It demonstrated that while it’s prudent for him to do the best he can to help other people, there’s only so much he can do. At the end of the day, there would’ve been some tides he can’t turn over. Sooner or later, nature will take its course with some less fortunate people.
On the other hand, the rest of Phil’s responses and ways of interacting with the citizens of Punxsutawney were generally hilarious, especially his encounters with Ned Ryerson. It started with Phil not racking his brain on who Ned Ryerson was as he introduced himself. On the second go, Phil guessed what Ned was about to say about himself and his profession. Then, as Phil ran off to Gobbler’s Knob, he pushed Ned out of the way and ignored him as he continued to run off. Then, in the following encounter, once Ned said, “Phil Connors!” Phil excitedly said, “Ned?” before socking him in the face. The momentum in these encounters kept mounting, leading to this unexpected and consequently priceless retaliation. Talk about putting the ‘punch’ in ‘punchline’!
Even Phil’s attempted suicides, though fundamentally depressing, were presented with hilarious results. After putting up with one rejection too many from Rita, Phil got depressed and tried to kill himself. After that attempt failed, Phil realized he couldn’t escape the time loop through death. As he thought about how the time loop went on, Phil assumed that he must’ve been a god to have survived so many suicide attempts. This sequential elaboration on Phil’s depression was packed with pure wit over its generally morbid elements. And to watch Phil recount the many times he died as he listed off his suicide methods so matter-of-factly to Rita, I can’t help but chuckle in response to it every time.
To add to the hilarious nature of this time loop, do you remember how, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, it’s never specified how long Belle stayed in the castle with the Beast or his servants? And how you’d have to draw your own conclusions about how long she stayed there before the big ballroom sequence?
In Groundhog Day, the movie and crew members were very vague about how long the time loop lasted. Judging from the number of times that either something happened or Phil experienced something, it felt like it went on for a couple of months, maybe three. But others had their interpretations of the scenario, too. The general fandom of this movie guessed it may have occurred for around thirty years. Bill Murray suggested that it went on for ten years. Harold Ramis and writer Danny Rubin, however, went the extreme route. Rubin thought the loop may have gone on for thousands of years, perhaps ten thousand in Ramis’ case. That is an insane amount of time for Phil to be stuck experiencing the same day in and day out! Regardless, I appreciate how vague the movie was about it. Depending on how quickly the viewers believed that Phil became a better man and a hardcore professional by the film’s end, the interpretations it would’ve invited add to its mysterious nature in play.
But no matter what’s on the surface or underneath it, the critical element holding the whole movie together is Bill Murray as Phil Connors.
The character himself was a compelling display of peeling back layer upon layer of egocentric mannerisms until a conscientious man was exposed. Still, Bill Murray’s performance brought him to life with a level of humbleness and sarcasm that lent this character some much-needed comedic value. Murray’s mannerisms throughout the movie contain a droll vocal assessment of the overall evaluation of the mundane or freaky elements in his life. His deliveries exposed as many flaws and complexity with this character as they did the laughter from the viewers watching him. On top of that, because of the humbleness Murray brought to this character, it would’ve experienced some changes at the same time as the character. The soft deliveries signaled the comedic elements of Murray’s deliveries, but by the end of the film, it reflected the talented gentleman Connors grew to become, though not without some comedic elements to back him up. Overall, this movie demonstrated Murray’s comedic talent while also sowing the seeds for his abilities as a serious actor.
The rest of the actors were terrific, too, primarily because of how natural they all felt in their performances: Andie MacDowell as Rita, Chris Elliot as Larry, Robin Duke as Doris, and even Bill Murray’s real-life brother, Brian Doyle-Murray as Buster. They all just played their parts as regularly as if they were them in their day-to-day life. And not one of them felt out of touch. Instead, they gave just the right inflections to emulate the right small-town feel.
Before I forget, I liked the amount of energy Stephen Tobolowsky gave to Ned Ryerson. He infused this character with an irresistible essence of charm and fast-talking mannerisms, making his nosy moments feel likably eccentric. He just made the most of his screen time in this movie and made the character feel as memorable as Bill Murray’s performance as Phil.
And this leads me to elaborate on the next element I admire so much about the movie: its atmosphere. Because this was set in early February, some locations carried a noticeable layer of frost in the surrounding areas. And that’s reflected very well here in the movie, too. But Groundhog Day’s selling point for me lay more in Punxsutawney’s more laid-back, humble, and grounded essence. From the townsfolk to the locations and the traditions being upheld, the movie upped its more positive aspects and ran rampant with them throughout the film and Phil’s continuous loops of Groundhog Day. It even got to the point where Punxsutawney felt like a potential suit for Phil if only because of the repetitive nature he experienced with the town and its people.
And for all its humor, the tone felt perfectly balanced out. When you have a story about a man experiencing the same old day on repeat, it could efficiently run the risk of being either too sentimental or too snarky. But much like Forrest Gump, Groundhog Day generally remained sentimental while being complimented with the proper dosage of oddball elements to offset it and help set the movie apart from the others. And in Groundhog Day’s case, it was its sarcasm, most of it courtesy of Bill Murray, and its bountiful sense of humor.
It’s not just the comedic tones that made the movie, though. When you look at Groundhog Day, the holiday, it’s a unique and intuitive tradition that signals whether we’d experience six more weeks of winter or an early Spring. And all it took was to see whether there was a shadow in sight. But it took the basics of Groundhog Day to a new and unprecedented level. While this movie explored it in graspable detail, its story frame around it made the holiday synonymous with time loops. Groundhog Day exemplified time loops the same way Back to the Future exemplified time traveling.
I’ve seen Groundhog Day about three times in the past month, and I suspect some appetizing element from the movie was sneaky enough to burrow its way inside me and talk me into giving it a repeat viewing. In a way, I was getting down on the Groundhog fever. Was it the general feel of Punxsutawney? Was it the acting? The characters? The activities? The story? It could be any of those, but Groundhog Day’s doing something right when it got me engaged enough to want to dive deeper into the movie and see what it is about it that appealed to me.
Each time I saw it, I realized that everything Phil experienced in his time loop could easily apply to anyone watching Groundhog Day. Of course, they would come in for the humor and Bill Murray’s priceless deliveries. But while the events at hand undeniably brought on the laughs thanks to them, the underlying message helped Groundhog Day carry a robust significance that would compel the viewers to live life to their fullest, just as the time loop’s been teaching Phil. It is comfort food, comfort food with an existential center.
The story is as inventive as it is contemplative, the characters are likable, the homeliness is irresistible, and its circumstantial variations range from very touching to beyond hilarious. Whether this is your first time or your umpteenth time, who wouldn’t want to relive a time of their life like that which they found in Groundhog Day?