IS THERE A “PERFECT” MOVIE? Review of “GROUNDHOG DAY”

Figure 1 - Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

Figure 1 – Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

You may recognize the image at the left: it’s clipped from a larger poster, shown in Figure 2. My wife (the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk) and I have a short list of what we call “near-perfect” movies, because we don’t think there’s such a thing as a “perfect” movie. So when we find one that pleases us and has fewer than the usual number of flaws, we put it on the list. I’m not talking about just movies we like a lot; I’m talking about movies we can both agree just don’t need fixing! (Now, these are our “NP” movies; you might disagree. I’d be happy to hear some that you like as “NPs,” or reasons why you think our choices aren’t for you.)

Among these — not all genre movies, either — are Bladerunner; The Princess Bride; Aliens; The Man Who Would Be King; The Haunting (not the Ghu-awful remake with Liam Neeson); The Thing  (From Another World) (both versions: the Howard Hawks as well as the John Carpenter — never mind the Matthijs van Heijningen one); Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki); Dragon Slayer; Terminator II; Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch, and a number of others. Whether it’s the screenplay, the actors, or whatever, these are movies we can watch again and again. Among these classics, I have to say, is the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott.

Figure 2 - Groundhog Day poster

Figure 2 – Groundhog Day poster (original)

SPOILER WARNING* Because this is an older movie, I will have a few spoilers here and there; my assumption, when dealing with a film that’s over ten and under thirty years old, is that most of the SF/F community will have already seen it. So if you haven’t, run out and see it right away! Got it? Okay, so the groundhog is out of the bag; you know what movie I’m referring to — have you seen it? Even if you haven’t, by now you probably already know the setup: Philadelphia TV weatherman Phil Connors (Murray), who feels he is above his job (even though he isn’t) as well as the people he works with, is sent for the third year in a row to cover a story he feels is below him: the February second appearance of Punxsutawney Phil, the USA’s most famous groundhog.

Figure 3 - Bed and Breakfast (not Isengard)

Figure 3 – Bed and Breakfast (not Isengard)

Phil, Rita — his producer (Andie MacDowell, Figure 4) — and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott, son of Bob Elliott of legendary comic duo Bob and Ray) head off in the face of an approaching blizzard to upstate Punxsutawney to meet the “rat,” as Phil calls it. Rita has booked “the talent” (as Phil calls himself) into a Bed &Breakfast (Figure 3) rather than the main hotel in town, because Phil calls the main hotel a “fleabag.” (Interestingly, the actual B&B that’s used in the film is in neighbouring Woodstock, Illinois, though only the exterior shots are used; the interiors are all soundstage sets.)

The following morning, Phil is awoken by his bedside clock/radio playing “I Got You, Babe” by Sonny & Cher, and the local DJs (played by Brian Doyle-Murray and Harold Ramis, the director of the film) bantering about how “cold it is out there, campers!” He heads downstairs and, after a bit of chatter with his landlady about how well he slept and “Chance of departure, 100 percent,” off to Gobbler’s Knob to see and interpret the ceremony for his viewers at WPBH. On the way there he passes an old man leaning on a wall looking for a handout — brushing him off by patting his pockets and miming that he has no money — and is accosted by an old high-school friend, Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky). Ryerson is one of those annoying people who is full of catchphrases (“Bing!”) and fastens on to you like a leech — “I sell insurance now and when I see an opportunity, I go after it like a bull!” — but Connors brushes him off too and makes his way to Gobbler’s Knob, just as Frankie Yankovic’s “Pennsylvania Polka” plays over the P.A. system.

(The music in this movie plays an important part; the most significant pieces are “I Got You, Babe,” “Pennsylvania Polka” and “Weatherman,” played by Delbert McClinton — written by George Fenton and Harold Ramis — as well as Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Eighteenth Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”) Phil (it’s no coincidence that his first name is the same as the groundhog’s) does a cursory standup before the groundhog’s prediction is given, then heads off to get a cup of coffee before they leave “in order to beat the storm.” At this point there is little or no chemistry — other than disdain on all sides — among the three newspeople.

Figure 4 - Andie MacDowell as Rita

Figure 4 – Andie MacDowell as Rita

When Phil, Rita and Larry (as far as I can tell, Phil’s the only one of the three with a last name) try to leave town, they are stopped on the thruway by an accident and a state trooper who tells them the blizzard has closed the roads back. “What blizzard?” a shivering Phil tells the trooper; “All this moisture coming up from the southwest is going to sweep past us and hit Altoona,” which is what he had told his TV audience the day before. They are forced to head back to Punxsutawney.

To cut a long story somewhat shorter, Phil awakens the next morning to the same song and the exact same banter from the two radio DJs on his alarm clock. “You’re playing  yesterday’s tape, idiots,” Phil says, before heading downstairs. Exactly the same events as “yesterday” play out again, and Phil realizes belatedly that he is reliving the same day. When he tries to tell Rita this, she takes it as more “talent” behaviour, thinking he’s working his way up to contract negotiations or something. The third day — and the fourth and fifth, all being replays of Feb. 2nd — play out the same way, except that Phil realizes he has the ability to change things by what he says and does.

Here’s where the Murray character (the old familiar one he often plays) comes out: he uses this newfound ability for entirely selfish ends: getting an attractive local woman, Nancy, into bed; robbing an armoured truck of a satchel full of money while the guards are distracted and that sort of thing. After a while, selfishness begins to pall, and he experiments with suicide, believing — but not sure, the first time — that at 6 a.m. his life would reset and he would be back on Feb. 2nd; he tries all sorts of methods to kill himself but every day he’s back again… and he starts to think of himself as “a God, not the God, but one of them.” By this time, Phil has lived out all his fantasies, and sets his sights on seducing Rita.

Figure 5 - Stephen Tobolowski as Needlenose Ned Ryerson

Figure 5 – Stephen Tobolowski as “Needlenose Ned”   Ryerson

At first, we think it’s just Phil being Phil, but as time passes, the type of person Rita is — and she is what she seems to be, a kind, gentle, attractive woman — begins to have an effect on the type of person Phil actually is; and we see the gradual redemption of Phil Connors — egotistical, untalented (can’t even play an instrument) asshat — as Phil Connors, warm, genuine polymath (speaks French, plays piano, knows literally everything that goes on in Punxsutawney, PA) with a genuine interest in Rita.

So what is it that makes this film near-perfect? I think it was the casting choices. Don’t let Bill Murray put you off as the lead. His schtick can get quite wearing: I find a lot of his movies are very hard to watch these days (including Stripes, Caddyshack, and Scrooged), because he goes on and on, and it’s hard to build a whole movie around that character and maintain the audience’s interest. It’s easier (like in Ghostbusters or Saturday Night Live) to take him, I feel, when he’s only one character of an ensemble; this movie is easier to take, because his character (the standard phony sleazeball character Murray usually plays) actually grows and changes as we watch. (Yes, there is redemption for him in Scrooged, but it’s fairly sudden, and there’s still something phony about his conversion.)

Originally, Michael Keaton was picked for the role of Phil Connors; in my less-than-humble opinion, that would have been a bad mistake. We moviegoers have an opinion of the kind of character Keaton plays — mostly Bruce Wayne but occasionally Batman; the clonehusband in Multiplicity, the fast talker in Night Shift, and so on. The closest Keaton come to Murray’s kind of sleazeball is Beetlejuice, and we accept that as a character, where we all kind of think Bill Murray’s the actual character he plays — though I have to say he can’t possibly be that sleazy (actually, I’ve heard he’s quite a nice guy)! So when we see a character that we know deep inside is a sleazy no-account creep — and we sort of think that of the actor, too — become a nice guy, it’s much more poignant and meaningful.

And while I, personally, have never been attracted to Andie MacDowell, I can accept that Rita is a genuine, warm and attractive character who can redeem Phil Connors. Likewise, Tobolowsky (who based Ned Ryerson’s character on his own insurance agent) is even creepier than Murray, as is Larry the cameraperson, played to the hilt by Chris Elliott. Both Ned and Larry are touchstones by which we can compare the redemption of Phil Connors. When he is able to make those two tolerable, you know he has made a major alteration in his own character.

Figure 6 - Larry tries to put the moves on Nancy

Figure 6 – Larry tries to put the moves on Nancy

And how Phil is able to change — or perhaps is desperate enough to change — his character is the meat of the movie; Harold Ramis directs with a deft hand what could have been a boring sameness of that Murray character, Frank Cross, we saw so much in Scrooged, for example. So what differentiates this character’s redemption — much the same in the beginning as his character in Scrooged — from the other? Well, Cross’s redemption, being more or less based on Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, took place overnight; you only catch a few glimpses of what caused his change and I, for one, never bought it all the way; there’s a certain phoniness that creeps (quite deliberately) into Murray’s voice when his character — whether Cross or Connors — is faking sincerity. In Groundhog Day, there’s a scene where Connors tells Rita “Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady!” and you can hear the insincerity oozing out. In every repeat of a scene we’ve already, uh, seen, Ramis, or Murray, has Connors put just the right amount of either sincerity or insincerity into the part. (According to IMDB, Murray just wanted Ramis to tell him on any given day, “Good Phil or Bad Phil?” so he’d know how to play it.) Over the course of the film, it all adds up to where we are ready to believe that Phil has changed. How much time does Phil spend reliving February 2? Well, Ramis is quoted as saying he thought Phil should spend 10,000 years reliving that day, but later — in a DVD extra — says it was probably about ten years. Another source has calculated that to learn all the stuff Phil learned, it would be over 34 years!

Australian funnyman Tim Minchin wrote a bunch of songs for the stage/musical version of this movie — which is not yet available on film/video that I know of, but it will, if it’s successful enough, be in the future, which will bring everything full circle, won’t it? According to reviews I’ve read, it reads more like a paean to small-town living (in both play and film, Phil and Rita decide to spend the rest of their lives together in Punxsutawney) than a tale specifically about redemption. But Minchin is a very clever guy, and I’m not sure the reviewer might not be missing his point. And in case you hadn’t noticed, there is a fairly good number of Saturday Night Live alumni in this film, including Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Chris Elliott.

Yes, the film has flaws, and goofs, but that’s not the point of a NP movie; the point is that the film — its plot, character and/or setting are so good you don’t mind seeing it multiple times, sometimes to the extent you can quote sections of dialogue wholesale (like I and many other people can with The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Monty Python and the Holy Grail or several other Monty Python movies or sketches). So what are your NP movies? Let me know, would you?

I’d really appreciate a comment on this week’s column. I don’t care if you want to throw bouquets or brickbats… I’m fallible, and maybe you’ve caught me in an error. That’s okay — go ahead and tell me! (It’s how I can tell whether I’m engaging my audience.) I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome, really, so don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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