Winter Movies: Groundhog Day

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Happy New Year, readers! I have one more blog entry to share before I go on a brief hiatus when I go on vacation next week. So let’s cut to the chase. My last winter movie is Groundhog Day. Featuring Bill Murray in one his best performances, it’s not only very funny, but it has some real heart to go with the laughs.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors. He’s a cynical and self-centered weatherman in Pittsburgh. Connors is heading to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Despite talk of a blizzard, Connors predicts the snow will miss Pittsburgh. He heads down to cover the festivities with producer Rita (Andie MacDowell_ and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). Phil pretty much phones in the assignment, making it perfect clear he has nothing but contempt for the event and the people in the small town. He’s more than ready to head back to the big city.

And that’s when a funny thing happens. Phil wakes up the next morning to Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe on the radio, and finds himself reliving the same day, caught in a kind of time loop. He is the only one aware of this, and uses that knowledge to his advantage. Since his actions have no consequences, he does whatever he wants, including binge drinking and reckless driving. Eventually he loses it and attempts suicide a few times. But he lives to fight another day trapped in the time loop.

Phil then explains the situation to Rita by predicting events that will happen in the time loop. Rota is sympathetic and they spend one of the loops together. But, the next day, Phil wakes up alone as usual. He then decides to take his time loop as an opportunity to better himself and help others. He learns how to speak French, play the piano, make ice sculptures, and tries to save a homeless man. What lets Phil escape his predicament is enthusiastically covering the Groundhog Day festivities and spending an evening with Rita when she wins him in a bachelor auction for charity. The next day, the same song is playing on the radio, but Rita is with him. The time loop is broken, leaving Phil a changed man.

Groundhog Day was directed by Murray’s Ghostbusters co-star Harold Ramis. Ramis also co-wrote the screenplay with Danny Rubin. This is one of the funniest but also smartest comedies to come out of the 90s. You really get a feel for the small town and its people. It has the feeling of a Frank Capra movie with a cynical edge. What’s interesting is that the story doesn’t just use the time loop plot device as an excuse for big laughs. It also uses it as an unconventional way for the film’s protagonist to experience real personal growth.

Bill Murray not only pulls off the cynical/dry comedy as we know he can. But he makes Phil’s journey a completely believable one. Murray proves himself just as good of a dramatic actor as a comedic one. He’s so routinely good that I think sometimes we take him for granted. This is a complex, inventive, and brilliant performance. That he did not earn an Oscar nomination absolutely boggles my mind. And the screenplay wasn’t nominated either. Another unforgivable oversight.

I have to acknowledge Murray’s supporting cast, especially Andie MacDowell. Rita has to be a perfect foil for Phil and also a believable love interest. She does both effortlessly. And Chris Elliott has fun as the likable cameraman Larry.

Groundhog Day was a modest success initially. But as the years have gone by, its reputation has grown. Now it’s become such a part of our popular culture that TV stations show it on repeat every Groundhog Day. It’s a film that will make you laugh, cry, and cheer. It’s worth seeing over, and over, and over again.

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