February 28, 2009 2 Comments
Not the holiday, the movie! To quote a line from the movie, the actual Groundhog Day is “A thousand people, freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat.”
The 1993 movie on the other hand is a masterpiece of romance, comedy and philosophy with the emphasis on philosophy.
I have no idea how to organize a description of this classic movie so I am going into stream of consciousness mode. (This technique was first employed by Édouard Dujardin (1861-1949) in his novel Les Lauriers sont coupés(1888) and was subsequently used by such notable writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. So stream of consciousness is a valid literary technique. I am sure most regular readers are trying to figure out when I use any other technique. But I digress.)
To me, Bill Murray is Cary Grant without the devastatingly good looks. Both have brought broad and dry comedy as well as dramatic acting to their work. Murray has the relative disadvantage as a leading man in that he does not look like Cary Grant. Therefore he needs to work harder to make it believable when he wins over the beautiful woman as he does with Andie MacDowell’s character. He has to transform that man-child cuteness into a beautiful soul. Harold Ramis, the c0-writer-director, provides the dramatic technique of repeating the same day over until the transformation occurs.
Is there humor? Mais oui. It is a Bill Murray vehicle. The humor though is generally dry and does not overwhelm the movie. This is not a joke-off. For me this is the type of humor Murray does better than almost anyone. It manifests from his vocal tone and facial expressions.
But it is the philosophy combined with the humor that makes me love this movie. How would you react if you were doomed to repeat the same day over and over and over again never knowing if there is an end? What would you do if you had one day to do anything you wanted to do? Would you use the time to become a better you?
Ramis and Murray take us on a magic ride of emotions. First, disbelief. Next annoyance. Then the first major breakthrough. Phil, Murray’s character, realizes the sense of freedom that comes with knowing there are no consequences to what you do today. This leads to wild risk taking. However after several days even the thrill of car chases and death defying stunts becomes ordinary.
Phil moves on to excess for the sake of excess. There is a great scene where he has platefuls of food in front of him and he stuffs pastries in his mouth between puffs on a cigarette. Worried about cholesterol? Of course not.
Next comes days of anger, in which a montage of alarm clock destruction occurs. Then comes the second breakthrough. While the rest of the world resets, he remembers what he has learned. Knowing that he can use information learned on the last repeated day to your advantage in the next one first leads to the equivalent of parlor tricks by an amoral man. He picks up an attractive woman, he allows someone to step into a deep puddle he had been stepping in, and then finally tries over days to win over Rita, Andie MacDowell’s character.
Phil sincerely wants Rita but he is still an amoral jerk above all else. Each day uses something he learns about Rita to make it further with her but ultimately his lack of true sincerity means that every day ends with a slap in the face. Slap after slap after slap.
Next comes the suicides. electrocution, jumping off a building, being hit by a truck and the piece de resistance. He steals Punxsutawney Phil, the official groundhog and after a long car chase does a Thelma and Louise off a cliff–and gets a laugh.
The final breakthrough is when Phil finally pays attention to an old beggar man that he had passed every day. After an act of charity, his first, the man dies. For several repeat days Phil tries harder to avoid the death but to no avail. This seems to set him off on a quest of self improvement and helping others that leads to the final Groundhog day. I will not attempt to describe all that happens that day other than to tip my hat to Ramis and Murray. This day needs to be seen. I guarantee many smiles. At the end of the day Phil’s transformation is complete.
Beyond the philosophy and humor, Ramis brings several cinematic structures to the film that demonstrate advanced movie making. There is the quick cut repetition from day to day that strings together days into a single scene. There is the filming of the digital alarm clock as the numbers turn from 5:59 to 6:00 am signalling to Phil and to us the rebeginning of another Groundhog Day. He also makes each day seem the same and yet just a little different. You begin to feel Phil’s personal hell.
Andie Macdowell is attractive as always and her minimalistic acting style is the perfect counter to Murray. My favorite Andie MacDowell moments are when she begins to smile, pulls it back and then smiles again.
Clearly in 1993 Bill Murray is somewhere as an actor between Meatballs/Stripes/Caddy Shack and Lost in Translation. This is some of his best work as an actor and comedian.
It is a movie that you can enjoy watching over and over and over again.