Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a network weatherman, sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover Groundhog Day, when a local groundhog emerges from hibernation to predict whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Caught out by a blizzard he had predicted would miss the town, Phil is forced to spend the night but then awakens to find that it is Groundhog Day again. And then again. And again. And again.
There is not an awful lot that is terribly new to say about Groundhog Day, but I will do my best. It feels like a Christmas film because of all of the snow, its channelling of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” vibe and Phil’s Scrooge-like arc, but it is set in early February. Its title has become shorthand for any surreal experience where you feel like you are repeating the same experience and many a TV series has played on, adapted or shamelessly ripped-off its central conceit.
It is an utterly brilliant film, up there with Airplane!, Some Like It Hot, Bringing Up Baby, Tap and the rest as one of the very best comedies ever made, with a flawlessly delivered central (sky high) concept and a lead acting performance that is nigh-on faultless. So strong is Murray’s performance (he definitely improves on his work in Scrooged as someone transitioning from curmudgeon to warm-hearted) that it is easy to overlook the supporting work. Especially noteworthy here is Andie MacDowell as Phil’s producer, having to play the straight role and also having to keep her performance absolutely static, with none of the character development that Phil goes through as he lives the same day hundreds, if not thousands of times over. She must play every scene as if it is her first time running it through, whilst Murray is able to gradually introduce shades of weariness and then manipulation.
Stephen Tobolowsky deserves much kudos too for his eccentric performance as “needle-nosed” Ned Ryerson, an insurance salesman who, despite dialing his performance up to 11, never unbalances the film. Like MacDowell, he faces the problem of keeping his performances fresh and unironic and manages laudably. But Murray is the star here. Initially manipulating his increased knowledge of the day and everyone who populates it to the extent of stealing from an armoured car and sleeping with Nancy, then trying to get MacDowell’s Rita into bed, then trying to break the loop by topping himself, he eventually decides to make the most of his time in Punxsutawney and betters himself as a person, even selflessly improving the lot of those around him.
In less capable hands this arc would appear insincere and affected, especially given how well Murray plays the selfish narcissist that Phil starts out as, but he carries it through beautifully and his lines to MacDowell (” I don’t deserve someone like you. But If I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life”, “Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now… because I love you.”), which look horrendously hackneyed on paper are incredibly moving as delivered.
So much ground is covered by Phil, that what eventually emerges is a masterclass in comic timing, pathos, cynicism and romanticism. If nothing else, the pause between him saying he likes to say a prayer and drink to world peace and the quiet “amen” makes the film worth watching. Too many high points to mention them all, but the montage of him trying to correct all of his mis-spoken words to Rita in order to set her up to go to bed with him (“you speak French?”, “Oui”), his inventive attempts at suicide and his desperate attempts to save the life of the homeless man for whom it was just his time (“not today”) all stand out. Apart from anything else you have to applaud a film that within its impeccably tight 100min running time gives us the same day over and over again, without feeling repetitive and that you can watch over and over without feeling bored.
Groundhog Day is coming up on 20 years old, yet its simplicity and timelessness mean that it could have been made 50 years ago or last week and the effect would be much the same. A beautiful, uplifting, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy that cannot be faulted. Get it and watch it a lot. It is out on Blu-ray to rent or buy from today.
Extras: Quite a lot, much of it recycled from earlier DVD releases, including “The Weight of Time” documentary, deleted scenes and a nature documentary on marmots. An interview with director Harold Ramis overlaps a little with his audio commentary, but he is a genuine and reassuring presence who shares plenty of interesting and informative insights on the making of the film and dealing with the issues of making it look and feel like the same day over and over. A rather odd BD exclusive involves Stephen Tobolowsky in character as Ned, popping up with trivia and quiz questions during the film. Odd and slightly irritating. The HD brush up for the film itself is excellent, retaining its timeless feel but still sharpening up the picture.