mwl-groundhogday

Groundhog Day (1993)

I told you. I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always February 2nd, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Synopsis

Arrogant, self-centered weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) finds himself re-living the same day – February 2nd, Groundhog Day – over and over again.

Why We Love It

Neither Bill Murray nor Harold Ramis are likely to receive lifetime achievement awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In fact, the closest either of them have ever gotten to Oscar gold was when Murray watched the statuette he could’ve won handed off to Sean Penn in 2004. Ramis, though his name is attached to some of the most classic comedies in history (Animal House, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Vacation), can only claim a BAFTA as the most prestigious award he’s placed on his mantel. Granted, winning an Academy Award neither vindicates someone any more than not winning one confirms worthlessness. Keep in mind – Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar and Stanley Kubrick did not. Still, in 1993, Murray and Ramis got together to work on a screenplay by Danny Rubin that would be hailed by cinephiles and story experts over a decade later for its tweaking of the three-act screenplay structure. One year later, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary would walk away with Oscars for doing the same thing.

Groundhog Day is deceptively good. The film is so hilarious, so touching and so endearing (more on all that later) that it distracts you as a viewer from how well-written it actually is. Once you discover and begin to understand that, though, it adds a whole other level of appreciation. If you’ve seen the film and love it as much as I do, it might be hard to distance yourself from it enough to understand how odd and – dare I say it – boring a pitch like Groundhog Day sounds. Think about it: “Hey (insert name of friend), let’s watch this movie. It’s about a guy who re-lives the same day over and over again.” “Why would I want to see that?” (insert name of friend) may respond. “If I’ve seen one day, I’ve seen them all.” Sure, the fact that the film stars Bill Murray when he was in his unconcerned-with-indie-cred prime may attract some, but with just a little imagination, I’m sure you can begin to marginally understand why it may not immediately appeal to everyone.

However, if you manage to convince this friend to watch the film, I can guarantee you that, assuming his/her soul is not in Satan’s possession, they will have laughed countless times on their way to being fully emotionally invested in Phil, his relationship with Rita and his development as a character.

In essence, this friend will have fallen victim, in the best possible way, to the masterful, subtle nuances of a script that perfectly hits every emotional note at every carefully scripted plot point. They’ve followed Phil’s journey, they’ve bought into what the filmmakers are selling and the story has progressed as smoothly as any three-act screenplay out there. But wait – don’t forget that this has all been accomplished thanks to the unending cycle of Groundhog Day. Though chronologically repetitious, the narrative is progressing forward. Phil is only able to move forward by going back. The best part, though, is that despite this convention, the repeating cycle doesn’t draw attention to itself. Thanks to strong performances and concise editing (courtesy of 3-time Oscar-nominee Pembroke J. Herring), the chronological invention blends into the background, never becoming gimmicky or cheap.

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It’s this little tweak that warrants the screenplay’s praise from the likes of Robert McKee, but if subtleties of the art of screenwriting aren’t your cup o’ tea (this is, after all, Film School Rejects), there’s still plenty on Groundhog Day‘s surface to enjoy. For one thing, there’s the aforementioned Bill Murray. Murray is famous for his ability to improvise during shoots and his reuniting with longtime friend and collaborator Harold Ramis left him plenty of opportunity to flex his comedic muscles. Harnessing his signature dry delivery and cynical wit, Murray delivers memorable and quote-worthy gems such as:

  • Can’t you check the satellite? Is it snowing in space?
  • People like blood sausage too, people are morons.
  • This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.
  • Ned, I would love to stay here and talk with you… but I’m not going to.

But Murray is not just funny. Groundhog Day, more so than any other film he had acted in at that point, proved that the comedian could also handle the emotional weight expected of leading men. As Phil is forced to re-live February 2nd again and again, we’re witness to a journey that sees him run the emotional gamut from confusion, to anger, to depression, to lunacy, to deception, to acceptance, and finally, to happiness and Murray shines in emanating all of these moods believably and genuinely. By the time he tells Rita, “I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life,” we sympathize with him for the weariness his voice conveys, but we also buy in to the idea that he’s finally learned to love someone other than himself.

May God strike me down, though, if I don’t at least mention the phenomenal supporting cast, all of whom add their own important piece in making Punxsutawney seem like a great place in which to live – or rent at first: there’s Larry (Chris Elliot), the endearingly pathetic cameraman (“You know, I think that most people just think that I hold a camera and point at stuff, but there is a *heck* of a lot more to it than just that”); Gus (Rick Ducommun), a local drunk who regrets leaving the Navy (“Hey Phil, if we wanted to hit mailboxes we could let Ralph drive”); Buster (Brian Doyle-Murray), the head groundhog honcho (“If you have to shoot, aim high, I don’t want to hit the groundhog”); and everyone’s favorite, “Needle Nose” Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky), the over-stimulated insurance salesman with whom Phil went to high school (“And I gots a feeling *whistles* you ain’t got any. Am I right or am I right or am I right? Right? Right?”)

Moment We Fell in Love

Ramis has said that in his mind, Phil Connors was stuck re-living February 2nd for over 1000 years. Recalling this, the diner scene in which Phil finally convinces Rita of his situation becomes all the more touching. What seemingly starts out as an arrogant, absurd revelation (“I’m A god. I’m not THE God…I don’t think”) develops into the most poignant scene in the entire film, climaxing when he delivers the quote italicized at the top of the page. As he walks through the diner, straight faced, answering Rita’s challenge to identify every random patron she chooses, the magnitude of his journey finally hits us. “I know all about you,” he tells Rita and we see in his eyes that he means it. He’s had over 1000 years to get to know her and in that time he’s come to love her, appreciate her and he wants her to believe him not just because he needs help, but because he wants her to know him, to love him, to appreciate him as well.

Final Thoughts

With so much done well in this film, what screenplay could possibly have beaten it for an Oscar in 1994? Technically, it wasn’t beaten by any film, seeing as Rubin’s screenplay wasn’t even nominated. More than 15 years later, though, it seems Groundhog Day is finally being appreciated for the brilliant film that it is. In fact, in January, Rubin was invited to speak at the Guggenheim on the subject of time. Perhaps it’s better that it didn’t garner enough attention upon its release, as those who love the film really love it, even more so because it’s almost like cinemas’s best kept secret and they’re in on it. Still, for a film that’s still being talked about in film schools all across the country, it would’ve been nice to at least win a Golden Globe. Do you know what screenplay beat it out? Dave. Try and name me the screenwriter for Dave without looking it up on IMDB. Can’t do it, can you? It was Gary Ross. How many times do you think Gary Ross has been asked to give speeches on presidential impersonators? My guess is none.


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