Monday, November 17, 2008

Groundhog Day-the philosophical comedy

"I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over..."

What would you do if you had all the time in the world? What would you do if your actions seemingly had zero consequences? If there are no consequences, then what's good and what's evil? If there's no tomorrow, then what is the point of today? Writer/director Harold Ramis tackles these kind of questions in his modern comedy classic Groundhog Day. Weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes up every morning to see that it's February 2nd and he's in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Phil doesn't know why this is happening (wisely Ramis and co-writer Danny Rubin never try to explain), but he knows that he's the only one who's experiencing the phenomenon. He tries to tell his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) what is going on, but to no avail. They wake up the next day on their first February 2nd.

The movie deals with some deep philosophical questions, mostly through Phil's reaction to what's happening. At first he gives in to every hedonistic fantasy one could imagine. He gets into a drunken high-speed chase with the cops (and is thrown in jail), steals money from an armored truck, seduces women with carefully placed knowledge (which he got from them the day before), and throws himself into gluttony with reckless abandon. He tries to seduce Rita, even spending time learning French and memorizing poetry to try and impress her. Rita proves to be a tough nut to crack and Phil eventually gives up. Before too long, the existential weight of his situation gets to him and he slips into a deep depression. He tries multiple times to commit suicide, shooting, stabbing, electrocution, etc. only to find the alarm in his Punxsutawney hotel room waking him up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, once again on Groundhog Day. He determines to do something good with his time when he's confronted with death, in the form of a sickly homeless man that Phil tries to save (God knows how many days he spends trying to rescue the old man). Phil realizes that maybe there are better ways to spend his eternity in Punxsutawney.

There's a lot of loneliness to Phil's situation. There's a scene where he and Rita are wasting time by flicking playing cards into an upturned hat, Rita says it'd take her years to learn how to do it as well as Phil does, but he says "Nah, six months. Practice 4 or 5 hours a day and you'd have it". There's a certain knowing melancholy to the way that Murray delivers this line, Phil has to spend his endless days doing something and when you realize that he has spent half a year just flicking cards, it really makes you think about whether his situation is a blessing or a curse. We're never told how long this goes on for (10 years, 10,000 years, it doesn't really matter). If you had all the time in the world, you could learn everything that there was to know, experience everything there was to experience. But Phil wouldn't have anyone to share in his knowledge or experiences, because they wouldn't remember what happened the next day. It's a sad life, and we're happy when Phil decides to do some good in the town, even if it seems futile.

Reading back through what I've written, it makes this sound like kind of a downer, but actually Groundhog Day is a terrific comedy as well. Watching the "teenaged, evil Phil", as Ramis has called him, after Phil discovers that there are no consequences to his actions, you see the gleam in Murray's eye that tells you he's having a good time indulging in his fantasies. He has a lot of great moments in the beginning being snarky ego-centric Phil, but there's also some things like when he hurts his back after hurrying to save a kid falling out of a tree (for probably the 1,000th time), the kid runs off and Phil shouts "You never thank me!". And all that isn't even going into detail about the terrific, somewhat one-sided, romance between Phil and Rita that is really one of the throughlines of the movie.

Murray is terrific, maybe the best he's ever been, and he's been great in a lot of movies. Andie MacDowell is radiant, and I can see why Phil falls for her. She's intelligent, beautiful, and MacDowell is just so likable and natural in the role. Chris Elliott is sort of underused in his role as the camera man, but really it's more because the movie is focused on Phil and his story, rather than trying to pad the running time, which Ramis has perfect at around 100 minutes. I can see why Groundhog Day has developed such a revered reputation (in 2006 it was added as one of the less than 500 titles in the United States National Film Registry because it was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"). It's much deeper than your typical comedy, but it also delivers a bunch of laughs. What more could you ask for?

1 comment:

kathy said...

I have always hated this movie. Maybe I just don't get it! Boorrringgg.