Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Essentials: "Groundhog Day"

Okay, a word of explanation. This was originally supposed to be the relaunch of The Alphabet Project, which I began last year over at my other blog. That project was supposed to go through my DVD collection from A-Z, allowing me time to post my thoughts on the films I own. My plan for 2010 was to restart it, but taking the films from my "shelf of honor," in which my 50 or so favorite films are.

Normally, we'll follow an alphabetical protocol...unless I feel like shifting things up based on what I feel like watching or how my mood is striking me; so I'll rename it "My Essentials"--I like the name because they're the films I feel are essential to knowing what type of films I like, and I consider all of them to be great works of art in their own cases. This week, I will have thoughts on two films for this column. In honor of this week's "holiday," I'll be writing my thoughts on "Groundhog Day," which I revisited again over the weekend. I've also got some Essentials titles backlogged from last year that I'd like to print here and I'll be seeing a new addition for my Catch-Up column on Saturday night.

But for now, let's talk about Groundhog Day.

GROUNDHOG DAY (PG, 1993, Dir. Harold Ramis)

"What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't today"

When we think of spiritual films or those that tackle existential crises, our thoughts tend to go toward Bergman, Ozu or a number of other somber artists not afraid to put entertainment aside in favor of delving deep into matters of the soul. When pressed to name my favorite "deep" films, I'm quick to point out "Babette's Feast," "Wings of Desire," "The Last Temptation of Christ," or "The Shawshank Redemption."

I'll admit that my thoughts don't immediately run towards an actor groomed on "Saturday Night Live" and the director of "National Lampoon's Vacation."

And yet, sitting here 17 years after it's release, I'm reminded again that the romantic comedy "Groundhog Day" addresses matters as deep as any of those previous films. It's a metaphor for those whose existince seems monotonous and uneventful. It's an examination of the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the film's hero finds that money, drink, ambition and sex grow hollow without something deeper. It takes us through life's cycles of monotony, recklessness, childishness, love, despair and finallly contenment. I'd wager that it's one of the deepest box office hits of the past 20 years.

It helps that it's hilarious.

Bill Murray, in one of the best performances of his career, plays Phil Connors, a Philadelphia TV weatherman who ends up repeating the same day over and over again in a small Pennsylvania town. Phil is obnoxious--he's the kind of television "talent" that loathes working in a small town with people he perceives as simpletons. He's arrogant, cynical and ready with a cutting remark--of course, it's all couched in Bill Murray's smarter-than-the-room wit, delivered with something akin to charm.

Phil goes through the daily routine of waking up, making banal chit-chat with the innkeeper of the bed and breakfast he's staying at, trying to avoid the annoying banter of a nerdy acquaintance who tries to sell him insurance, condescendly addressing the audience watching his newscast in Punxsatawney and trying to maintain his sanity as he tries to get home with his coworkers--particularly his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), who has just as much sincerity as Phil has cynicism.

Unable to return home, Phil goes back to his hotel and falls asleep...only to awake at 6 a.m. to the same song ("I've Got You Babe") on the radio, followed by the same banter by the radio deejays. Stepping outside, Phil relives the same encounters and conversations he endured on Groundhog Day and quickly comes to realize he's living the same day over and over. He can change and make different decisions, which affect the outcome of his day---but no matter what he does, he'll still wake up in bed at 6 a.m. on Feb. 2 listening to two deejays telling him to put on his warm woolies because it's cold out there today (it's cold out there everyday; what is this, Miami Beach?)

The script by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, of course, exploits this for its comedic potential. Once Phil quickly accepts his new reality, an excitement sets in--he can do whatever he wants. He can participate in a car chase, manipulate a single lady, steal from the bank, eat as much as he wants. And, of course, he begins to be captured by Rita's innate goodness and works to earn her affection. And while she begins to fall for him, Phil always finds himself rebuffed at the end of the night.

Which leads into the darkest passages of the film, in which Phil begins to despair and grows suicidial. Yes, there's the funny scene where he kidnaps the town's groundhog and drives his car off a cliff. But there's a somberness to the scenes where he electrocutes himself, steps in front of a car or leaps from a building. The scenes have just enough levity to keep us from being depressed, but not enough for them to be considered slapstick--there's something deeper going on here, as Phil's journey begins to speak for our own...who hasn't felt that each day was the same, that they were stuck in a rut they couldn't get out of? Who hasn't begun to despair and felt that there has to be a way out? The film is addressing a dilemma faced by all of us. "What would you do," Phil asks some local drunks, "If you were stuck in the same place and every day was the same and nothing you did mattered?" "That about sums me up," one of the drunks responds.

And yet, the film doesn't end in those hopeless passages, nor does it venture off into an inane plot where Phil discovers how he can get out of his day-to-day loop. Instead, Phil makes peace with his situation and instead resolves to make himself better and kinder. He learns to play the piano, tries in vain to help a dying man and becomes a local hero as he saves those throughout town who have flat tires, are about to choke or fall from trees. He starts to loose his cyniscism, but Murray never makes the transformation unbelievable or removes the character's edge; Phil is still funny, but a bit more self-deprecating than caustic. We start to like him more--and as we do, so does Rita.

Yes, it's a typical tale of redemption--not that too disimilar from "A Christmas Carol" or "The Grinch"...same idea, different holiday. And yet the film never feels cliche, sappy or tired. Even its necessarilly repetitive structure still feels fresh the entire way through because of the clever ways the script changes Phil's interactions with people and events through each cycle. Had it been a one-note comedy, the film would have easily fallen flat, but Ramis is wise enough to change the tone as the story requires, creating the rare comedy that is both brilliant in its conception and involving on an emotional and existential level.

Murray is essential in this role--he's one of the few actors who we love to watch even as a jerk. Perhaps we sense a good guy beneath the snide comments or Murray's charisma from previous roles just predisposes us to like him. I have a feeling that it's because Murray lets us in on Phil's secret--that underneath all his sarcasm and cynisicsm lies a wounded man. A man who can get women to sleep with him, but no one to love him. Who can be a talent, but only in a small market like Philadelphia. A man who thinks he's smarter than the rest of the world and a bit skeptical as to why they all still seem to be happier than him. He never comes out and reveals a past hurt, but he doesn't need to; any recovering cynic recognizes one of their brethren. The key is that Murray plays the role just right all the way through--he plays Phil not as a bad man, but a jerk; we laugh at how rude and obnoxious he is while also realizing he's not a guy we'd want as a friend. His tranformation is allowed to come gradually as Phil begins to learn what he desires, what isn't workinga nd what he needs to do to get it...there's a subtlety to Murray's performance here that I think goes unappreciated. Oddly enough, in his later dramatic roles, it's the subtlety that Murray is praised for--I think people overlooked the wonderful skill on display here as well.

To see how good Murray is here, contrast it with his work in "Scrooged" just a few years earlier. While the film makes me laugh, I've always felt it comes across as a bit "off," laughing at Dickens' story rather than appreciating its power. And part of that reason comes from Murray's miscalculated performance--his character is crass and cruel, not sarcastic and funny. Although we learn there are dashed dreams in his background, we never feel much of the weight of them. And his transformation at the end feels too abrupt and also insincere. "Groundhog Day" covers many of the same thematic elements as "Christmas Carol," and yet Murray's work is much more powerful here...it's because he's created a character that we like and who is allowed to breathe, learn and grow.

But recognition also belongs to the game cast that surrounds Murray here, who are required to repeat themselves over and over while having no clue what Phil is enduring. Andie MacDowell is the anti-Phil and she plays here role as a sincere, kind-hearted woman without the neuroses or vapidness too many romantic comedy heroines seem required to have. Chris Elliott's work may be smaller, but he manages to get a laugh every time he speaks. And Stephen Tobolowski--as poor Ned Ryerson, the insurance salesman (Bing!)--is priceless, a great supporting character that provokes some of the film's biggest laughs.

It's funny how "Groundhog Day" has seeped into our culture. When we get deja vu, we often say something feels like "Groundhog Day." It's a film that has gone from being a clever romantic comedy to being admired as one of the most in-depth and even spiritual films of the past 20 years. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies review of the film (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/) has made allusions to "It's a Wonderful Life." And the more I see this film, the more I am inclined to agree. "Groundhog Day" is funny and clever, but its true success comes from how well it captures the human predicament and how wonderfully Bill Murray captures every second of screen time.

It's totally cliche to see this, but if I was forced to repeat the same film over and over, I could do much worse than "Groundhog Day."

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.