MAKE ‘EM LAUGH: Groundhog Day

In a month of columns devoted to comedies, we begin with Bill Murray as a TV weather man forced to keep reliving the worst day of his life in…

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
Starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell
Directed by Harold Ramis
Released by Columbia Pictures
101 minutes

Phil:   What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

This line in the comedy Groundhog Day could be talking about how most people feel about their everyday lives, but for Phil (Bill Murray), a TV weatherman from Pittsburgh, these words have a completely different meaning.   As punishment for his self-involved existence, the universe has deemed that Phil must keep reliving the day of February 2nd and he has to do it in the most boring city in the world, aka Punxsutawney Pennsylvania.

When we first meet Phil, he’s a man whose ambition has made him convinced that he’s meant for bigger and better things.   His egotism quickly alienates his sweet producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and wise cracking cameraman (Chris Elliot) who seem happy to have just gotten out of the studio.

Murray has made a career out of playing charming weirdoes and egocentrics and without a doubt, Phil is the best character of his career.   Murray really had to step up to the plate in Groundhog Day because since he’s the only person in the film with any character development, the film would fail miserably if his performance wasn’t affecting.

Without playboy looks to depend on, the brilliance of Murray’s performance is all in his line delivery.   Whether it’s a snarky comedic moment: “this is an example of when television fails to capture the excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather” or a romantic one: “what I wanted to say was I think you’re the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Murray has the capability of always making you love him.

MacDowell, who was a major star in the nineties but sadly since she’s not Susan Sarandon has fallen off the radar lately, is also has her career best as Rita.   Sweet but pragmatic, Rita is a woman who sees the positive in everything.   MacDowell wins you over not simply because she’s exceptionally beautiful, but because she easily holds her own with Murray in every scene they’re in.

Since the film is a fantasy plot of a man stuck in time, the comedy comes from repetition.   Phil remembers everything that happens while everyone else in Punxsutawney has their memory erased by the end of the day.

In the first few days of his curse Phil uses his advantage in devious ways such as stealing money from the local bank or the hilarious sequence where he seduces a woman using information he learned the day before.   But when it comes to Rita, Phil eventually realizes that sneaky manoeuvres won’t win her over.   He has to make a genuine attempt at being a better person if he has any chance at winning her over in the “one day” that they spend together.

The brilliance of the script and editing of the film is that even though we see the same day over and over and over, the story never gets boring.   The lead actors’ performances are obviously important to this but the film would quickly become stagnant if the residents of Punxsutawney weren’t equally as strong.

The stand out is these supporting characters is Stephen Tobolowsky as “Needle-Nose Ned” an annoying acquaintance of Phil’s from High School. Tobolowsky is at his best when he plays slimy, arrogant and annoying character.     Just see him as Hugo Jarry in Deadwood for confirmation.

Sure, it’s a cliché in Hollywood that an egomaniac like Phil learns to become a better person through the love of a good woman and the message that only you have the possibility to make the worst day of your life into the best may seem corny written down, but the performances are so great and the writing is so sharp that you don’t even think about those things when you’re watching this film.   Instead, you can laugh at what is definitely one of the most under-appreciated comedies Hollywood has ever produced.

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