Directed by: Harold Ramis
Premise: A cynical TV weatherman
(Bill Murray) travels to a small town in Pennsylvania to report on the
annual Groundhog Day event and finds himself reliving the same day over
and over again.
What Works: The filmographies of Harold Ramis and Bill Murray are a mixed record, including some of the great comedies of all time, like Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters, but their collaborations are offset by some much more forgettable titles. Groundhog Day is not quite as madcap as some of their other collaborations but it is one of the most memorable, thoughtful, and well made films in both of their careers. This movie introduces a novel premise, of a man trapped in the same day and doomed to repeat it ad infinitum. The filmmakers take full advantage of the premise, with the character passing through phases of confusion, joy, frustration, nihilism, and finally resignation. These phases allow the character and the movie to display a great range of emotions and yet the filmmakers also keep the tone consistent enough that the transition from one mood to another never feels jarring. Bill Murray is cast in the lead role and this is one of Murray’s best performances. No one plays meanness with quite the same glee as Bill Murray and his talent for this is partly to do with how Murray is able to treat people awfully and yet keep the audience on his side. Groundhog Day uses that talent to full effect. Murray gets a lot of laughs early on in the film in his mistreatment of his producer and cameraman (Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott) as well as the rest of the community but that mistreatment pays off as Murray’s character turns a corner. This is important for the film rhetorically because it allows the audience to avoid hating themselves for loving all of Murray’s awfulness. And that is part of what works so well about Groundhog Day; this film is reminiscent of the films of Frank Capra such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe in that the story involves characters facing and ultimately defeating cynicism. Another of the exceptional elements of Groundhog Day is how well it is made. In order for the movie to work the continuity in the set design and in the performances has to be perfect and it frequently is. The film is also very well edited. The conceit of the film could lead it to be very repetitive but filmmakers show very good sense for when to repeat themselves and when to skip ahead in time and maintain the momentum of the picture.
What Doesn’t: How the viewer feels about Groundhog Day may ultimately depend on how cynical he or she is. After having a lot of fun with the premise in the opening half, the film begins working on rehabilitating the main character, converting him from a conceited jerk and into a sensitive and affable citizen. The trouble is that Bill Murray is most interesting to watch when he’s being obnoxious and as he becomes more genial be also becomes less entertaining. The change in Murray’s character is also subject to viewer disposition. He starts the picture as an awful human being and it is debatable whether such a person could ever make the kind of change that is displayed in this film, even within the fantastic conceit of Groundhog Day. The ending is easy and somewhat saccharine; the one major opportunity missed by the filmmakers is exploring whether Murray’s character could maintain his newfound goodness when the Groundhog Day cycle is broken. If the viewer is any kind of a cynic this question swirls over the ending of the picture and those who tread toward skepticism and misanthropy may find the conclusion of the film wanting. As it is, the ending is nice and fits tonally with the picture.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettess, and deleted scenes.
Bottom Line: Groundhog Day is among the best films of Harold Ramis and Bill Murray’s careers. As of late the comedy genre has been increasingly stupid and unimaginative and aspiring comic filmmakers would do well to learn from the successes of this picture.
Episode: #476 (February 2, 2014)