by Amy Goldman
There are certain movies I can watch over and over again, and often do, because I’m a giant dork. Groundhog Day is one those movies—I’ve watched it over and over again without ever growing tired of Bill Murray’s rodent impressions. In a hilarious twist of fate, Groundhog Day is about Bill Murray living the same day over and over again. Are Bill Murray and I soul mates? Probably. Is Bill Murray a golden god of comedy? Absolutely.
Director Harold Ramis has made a string of classic comedies featuring the actor, including Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. While Groundhog Day isn’t necessarily the best film they’ve made together—or, to be honest, even the second best—it’s one of my personal favorites. The story is occasionally heavy-handed and trite. Many of the conventions associated with romantic comedies and movies about jerks getting second chances to be nicer people via fantastical glitches in time continuity are all there, but it’s still an incredibly likeable and funny film. The surprisingly high-concept script by Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin is in turn sincere, absurd, and unexpectedly dark. This movie is all over the comedy map, just like my emotions while I watch it.
In his second role as a man who really hates rodents, Murray stars as disgruntled Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Conners. For the last three years, Phil has been assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA, where Phil the groundhog makes his annual unreliable prediction as to whether spring will come early or winter will stick around for another six lousy weeks. Phil the man loathes his job and everyone around him. To be fair, Phil’s self-centeredness and intense sarcasm doesn’t exactly jibe with the sunny attitude of his producer, Rita (Andie McDowell with flushed cheeks by L’oreal) or cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot, annoying as always). Even the friendly locals Phil meets in Punxsutawney repulse him, and he has no qualms about expressing his resentment. It’s apparent that Phil wants his life to change, but he’s too immature to realize that can’t happen until he stops being so terrible.
Here’s where the gimmicky plot device kicks in to instigate Phil’s narrative progression: Phil begrudgingly covers Groundhog Day for the TV station, only to wake up the next morning to the exact same irritating radio announcement (courtesy of the unfortunate 60’s classic “I Got You Babe”) and finds that it’s Groundhog Day all over again. And again. And again. According to Ramis, our smarmy protagonist is stuck in this polka-centric limbo for ten years until he wises up and becomes the man he needs to be.
At this point in the film, there isn’t much difference between Phil the man and Phil the rodent. They’re both obnoxious and people want to punch them in the face when they hear what they have to say about the weather. As Phil comes to realize the rules of his captivity—even if he dies, he still wakes up to live anther Groundhog Day, and no one else remembers the previous day—he finds new and worse ways to take advantage of the people around him. His creepy attempts to seduce Rita fail, and in a seriously dark montage, he commits suicide in many creative ways. Phil’s progression from a sad sack to the man he becomes at the end of the film is so enjoyable to watch because Bill Murray is undeniably brilliant in this role. Murray is at his best when portraying the borderline insane and he has plenty of material to work with as Phil breaks down and picks himself up again. Even the (SPOILER ALERT) syrupy happy ending is saved from being overbearing by Murray’s inspired performance.
While not filmed in Pittsburgh, or even Western PA (it was instead filmed in Woodstock, Ill.), Groundhog Day nicely captures the hometown charms of this region and its residents. You don’t have to be the Rainman of film buffs or an obsessive cinephile like me to enjoy this movie. See it for Bill Murray’s Clint Eastwood impression. See it for the scene where he maniacally kidnaps Phil the groundhog and drives them both over a cliff. See it especially if you hate Groundhog Day, because no man has more thoroughly eviscerated a stupid celebration than Phil Conners. All too appropriately, Groundhog Day is shown on TV over and over again, but that can be seen as a testament to the movie’s—OK, Bill Murray’s—addictive appeal.