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November 16, 2018

Groundhog Day

by Franz Patrick


Groundhog Day (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

For the fourth year in a row, Phil (Bill Murray), a weatherman, is assigned to go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover a Groundhog Day report. He resents this annual task and he makes his sentiments known to everyone. On the second day of February, Phil believes it is just another day. He figures if puts in half the effort and gets through the day, the torture would soon be over. To his surprise, he wakes up the next day and discovers that it is still Groundhog Day. And no matter what he does, the next day is the same, like he is stuck in a hell specifically designed for him.

Based on the screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, “Groundhog Day” is lucky because although it exhausts its premise rather quickly, it remains buoyant, once in a while reaching creative peaks, with the help of the lead actor. Take away Murray’s signature quirks and style of humor and the material is reduced to a mechanical formula with many of its plot developments readily seen from a mile away.

I enjoyed that Phil is an unlikeable guy. He knows he has a sharp tongue and is not afraid to use it because he knows he can get away with it. What makes the character very funny is that Murray plays him smart. His caustic sarcasm is always padded with an eye of condescension. Instead of simply playing a guy who says mean things from time to time, the performer in a way dares us to think that we are as witty as his self-centered character. How much of what he shares is the real Phil relative to Phil the TV personality? The irony and what makes him fascinating is that his two selves have become so in sync that discerning between them proves difficult for him, too.

Occasionally, the days on repeat have a freshness to them. The writing reaches a zenith when Phil is allowed to revel in his fantasies. Some standouts include stealing money from a bank, regaling a woman for a one night stand, and getting in trouble with the law for driving under the influence. He knows that his decisions for the day will bear no consequence so he lets loose. These scenes are executed with wonderful enthusiasm without losing track of the character’s rather offbeat personality. Also, I liked that it touches upon the other side of the spectrum by tackling more sensitive moments. I wished there had been more scenes between Phil and the homeless old man he passes by every morning.

The heart of the picture is the romance between Phil and Rita (Andie MacDowell), the producer, which left me lukewarm. Initially, the attraction is difficult to buy into because we get the impression that Phil just wants to get inside her pants. This is not helped by scenes that come just before when Phil tries to bed an unsuspecting woman who comes to believe that he is a former classmate. Eventually, through a slow burn, we get a sense that Phil’s feelings for Rita are real. Still, I did not believe it completely because I was never able to let go of the fact that Rita has really only come know Phil for a day—and on a very good day. The problem is that she has no recollection of the other bad days they share. They never feel as though they are functioning on the same page.

“Groundhog Day,” directed Harold Ramis, could have done without the undercooked romance. A more interesting trajectory might have been an exploration on how to earn mutual respect among colleagues. It seems as though Larry (Chris Elliott), the cameraman who seems to have a seething frustration, might have wanted to give Phil a piece of his mind every so often. But since the romantic relationship takes center stage, everything else gravitates around it.

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