IMDB #159 Groundhog Day

"Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's cooooold out there today."

"That's right woodchuck-chuckers, it's GROUNDHOG DAY!"

The hilarious, seminal, mind-bending (gently, but still) 1993 classic comedy is today's subject on the countdown- it's funny: every time I approach a classic movie hesitantly, because what could I possibly have to say about a movie so ubiquitous and beloved, I find myself pondering deeper questions and writing even more than usual.

It bodes well for the future of the countdown, I would say. In any case, let's do this.

The Key Players:

Ivan Reitman's fame as a director (Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Analyze This) is arguably equal to his fame as Egon from Ghostbusters one and two.

Bill Murray (whom we saw briefly once already) rose to national prominence as a wild man on "Saturday Night Live" and in Meatballs, Stripes, and Caddyshack. And he's had a resurgent decade on the strength of his world weary performances in Lost In Translation, Rushmore, and The Life Aquatic. But really, didn't that essential "Bill Murray" persona already exist in an earlier form in his 90s hits like Scrooged and Groundhog Day anyway? Arguably even his unprofessional parapsychologist in Ghostbusters used nihilistic humor to mark an inner sadness. There's a case to be made here, but we don't have the time or space.

Remember Andie McDowell? She used Steven Soderbergh's breakout hit Sex, Lies, and Videotape as a springboard to co-headlining a bunch of romantic comedies like Green Card and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Just as Murray can be seen embracing his age in an ironic way, she's a spokeperson for L'Oreal these days that would like you to know you can postpone it.

Chris Elliott and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky appear in support.

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The Story:

A sci-fi premise with none of the expository trappings you'd expect, Groundhog Day stars Murray as a vain, cranky Pittsburgh tv weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog Day ceremonies in Puxatawney, PA for the fourth year in a row.

He drives out the night before with a wise-cracking cameraman (Elliott) and his new producer (McDowell), and wakes up a miserable day of well-beneath-his-taste small town pleasantries- he's even trapped in town for an extra night by a blizzard just out of town, the same blizzard he predicted would miss the area altogether.

He goes to bed, he wakes up to the same song ("I Got You Babe" by Sonny & Cher), same radio dj patter as above. He soon finds he's repeating Groundhog Day, all over again, but nobody else seems to remember doing it all before. Every time he goes to bed, he wakes up to the same clock, the same song, the same town, the same day.

The Artistry:

Groundhog Day started out as a very different kind of movie. In the first week of shooting, some of the most expensive scenes were produced- Murray's character, realizing that there were no consequences to any of his actions, gets his hair cut into a mohawk, and destroys his room at a bed and breakfast with a chainsaw, only to wake up and have everything restored.

Harold Ramis, after the production spent thousands on mohawk hairpieces, duplicates of destroyed props, and scenery restoration, took a look at the footage, decided 'nope', and tossed it out.

Instead, after the second time through the fateful day, a visibly shaken and confused Murray goes to bed, but breaks a pencil and puts it on the nightstand before falling asleep. 6:00 AM, and the pencil's whole again, and this quiet moment (in place of an over-the-top mohawk/chainsaw test) sets the character down a more existential path.

How do we tell the difference between things we want and things we need? If everything in our day to day routines was taken out of the equation, how would we choose to pass the time? What would give us purpose?

This is what Groundhog Day asks, or at least specifically asks Murray's Phil Connors. He first moves from confusion to a sort of glee at living without repurcussions (seducing a local woman, robbing a bank) to a single-minded pursuit of Rita, his kind-hearted producer.

The reasons for this are unclear, other than Rita being one of the constant presences in his "day" (no matter what he chooses to do, she'll at least seek him out to see why he blew off reporting the groundhog ceremony) and being totally early-90s-hot. A masterpiece of editing follows in which, bit by bit, he learns little things about her and treats her eventually to a "perfect" evening, but no matter how many times he orders her favorite drink, recites French poetry, and says cliche things about wanting children, he's usually met with a slap in the face.

Even with an eternity to smooth it out, trying too hard isn't the answer. A depression sets in, where Phil attempts many times to commit suicide (highlighted by the film's comic apex, the car chase with Phil the groundhog)- given the timing, it seems brought on by his inability to score Rita, but it's really the last vestige of a man with everything stripped away- even when it's funny, Murray's trademark hangdog expression is perfect for this sort of despair.

The real beauty of Groudhog Day is in the final third, when Phil finds purpose by helping the townsfolk and learning various skills (ice-sculpting, classical and jazz piano) since he has the time. Even as he acknowledges his limits when he's unable to save the old homeless man, Phil learns that our lives are defined by the idle hours we pass with ourselves as well as our impact on the community around us, even one that doesn't remember you.

What makes the film a classic is that this Frank Capra-like life lesson is more or less a backdrop to hilarious scene after hilarious scene. The comic timing of the most depressing and uplifting elements of Groundhog Day prevent it from even approaching maudlin. One of my favorite examples is Phil's eloquent, expressive speech that capitvates the entire crowd by the last "day": the cut right into the middle of the scene elicits the biggest laugh from me, every time.

Murray's performance is of course integral to the film and well realized but McDowell has an important torch to carry as well. She has to be tolerant enough of Murray's crass persona in the beginning to sell falling for him later, and naive enough not to doubt his sudden (to her) transformation for too long. It helps that her character has just met Phil. Chris Elliott meanwhile plays a pretty good Chris Elliott, just like he does in guest appearance on every other sitcom in the last decade.

It's hard to really judge the cast- I know their parts so well and saw this movie first so long ago that they're nearly actual people in my mind. They exist in a Punxatawney that grows more familiar with each repetition, populated by the sort of regular, midwestern folk that I know well (at least cinematically).

Groundhog Day is an allegory for the filmmaking process as well. Take after take after take, all to find which one has the spirit, the feel that the picture needs. The editing determines the resulting product just as our decisions determine the outcomes of our days.

As mentioned up top, with the wrong choices, Groundhog Day could have become a much different film: a funny one, sure ("Oh that crazy Bill Murray!"), but more run-of-the-mill funny than deep-thinking funny.

If I have one, minor critique of the film it would be the too-obvious soundtrack choices, like Ray Charles' "You Don't Know Me" to the montage of Phil's failed attempts at Rita (because he, like, totally doesn't really know her, get it?), or "Weatherman" by Delbert McClinton.

Finally, I can't say enough about the decision not to explain the basic premise: apparently an early version of the screenplay had a gypsy curse or some such thing. Explaining it in any fashion would make the movie something else entirely- trying to ground it in any real-world or other-worldly phenomenon would make it cheaper somehow, and less universal.


After an indeterminate amount of Groundhog Days (Ramis estimates as much as 40 years' worth), Phil appreciates life, wows the entire town and Rita on one especially fine day that culminates in Rita winning his company in a bachelor auction.

The next morning, the alarm goes off, and "I Got You Babe" plays...but it's a fakeout, as Rita shuts off the alarm and Phil freaks out.

It's a new day, and they run off in the snow to the tunes of "Almost Like Being In Love." Aw.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

"If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog."

The real question here is where the F%&%^ is Ghostbusters, countdown voters? For all my meaningful bluster you just read, sometimes funny is just funny, too.

The Legacy:

This would win the BAFTA for best original screenplay, but go largely unrecognized otherwise. Today it's revered as one of the most spiritual films of our time by Buddhists and Catholics alike, already preserved in the NFR, and the title is instant shorthand for the time-loop concept, or any unpleasant, recurring situation (especially in the military, for some reason).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

"There is no way that this winter is ever going to end, as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don't see any other way out. He's gotta be stopped....And I have to stop him."

Leftover Thoughts:

-Stephen Tobolowsky, AKA annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, has an excellent podcast at Slashfilm- the episode where he reminsces about Groundhog Day was an immense help in writing this article.

-Question: didn't he ever try and stay up until six the next morning? I might not be yet in my middle age, but how hard is it to stay awake 24 hours if the very nature of TIME AND THE UNIVERSE is at stake? Just a thought. He probably would just instantly be back in bed at 6 on Groundhog Day again at that instant, anyway, since not even his death breaks the cycle.

-"I don't know, you're a producer: think of something!"

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

-A good metaphor for how this film affects me is the look on the face of the dude on the stairs when Murray recites some Coleridge, kisses him on both cheeks, and departs with a pleasant "Ciao!"

-The day this is posting we're expecting -25 degree sind chills here in Milwaukee, which seems appropriate.

Coming Up...

158. The Bourne Ultimatum

157. The Big Sleep

156. Ben-Hur

1 Response to "IMDB #159 Groundhog Day"

  1. I don´t even know where to start. This movie is so much part of my growing up years... spending christmas at my parents place at home without watching this... not possible. A classic in it´s own right. Thanks for this, enjoy your week and feel free to browse by the blog I´m writing for-

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