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Netflix Recommendation: Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993)

Groundhog Day is the best comedy of the past twenty-five years, maybe more. It is the rarest of films– it takes a high-concept idea and literally explores every facet that the concept could conceivably provide. How many times can you think of a movie starring a big-name comedian where its wacky premise is merely used as an excuse for scatological humor and broad sight gags? I can think of thousands. Groundhog Day takes its wacky premise and twists it with a neverending source of creativity. Instead of a deficiency of clever idea, this film is overflowing with them. Anchoring it all is Bill Murray, whose trademark delivery keeps the film from tiptoeing into gooey Frank Capra earnestness. The end result is exhilarating, a truly smart high-concept comedy which actually earns its happy ending. It’s an absolute joy to behold.

We begin with Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a Pittsburgh weatherman who gives a dry but goofy delivery of the forecast for Groundhog Day weekend. When the cameras are off, he reveals his egomaniacal side- he can’t hide his disdain for everything and everyone around him, and he absolutely loves himself. No one plays this type of role better than Murray, and certainly writer/director Harold Ramis was used to working with Murray at this point in their careers and knew exactly how to tailor this story to this star. Phil travels with his new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) to Punxsutawney, PA for the emergence of the groundhog and whether he’ll see his shadow. He flippantly reports on the ceremony, after a morning of dealing with well-meaning yet annoyingly chipper locals, including former classmate Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky). A sudden blizzard snows the crew in after the proceedings, so Phil is forced to (the horror!) spend the night in this small town.

When he awakes (to the sounds of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” which grows funnier every time it plays), he finds it is Groundhog Day– again. There is no mystical character who forces this, no natural event which jolts him into this alternate reality, no voodoo curse from a vengeful party he scorned. It occurs without any explanation, and despite Phil’s best attempts, when he wakes up the next day, it will be in the same hotel room with I Got You Babe signaling the same morning has dawned. The rest of the film deals with the various stages Phil goes through in attempting to cope with this reality. He tries to commit suicide. He tries to bag girls. He learns all of the infinitessimal intricacies of the town, first to exploit them, then to use them to help himself, and finally to use them to help others.

I find this film is strangely religious in a way. The lack of explanation for the repeated day can easily lead to the conclusion that a higher power looked down upon one of his creations, saw he needed fixing, and took measures to allow the man to fix himself. Phil concludes it is due to divine power as well, although, in one of the funniest scenes in the film, he believes he is a god– “not THE god, A god,” he corrects Rita who understandably thinks his ego has truly gone off the deep end. There’s no one manipulating Phil’s behavior, and there’s no guardian to help him along his path. He has to experience life in every way imaginable before determining its value on its own, and he finds that loving others and acting selflessly is the most fulfilling path to take. For a high-concept comedy to be so intelligent that it inspires discussion of religion and philosophy? It takes a stroke of genius.

That genius is Harold Ramis. Let’s examine a selection of some of the films he’s written, shall we? National Lampoon’s Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back to School, and this film– without question, he is one of the most successful comedy film writers of his generation, if not the best. Usually, the brilliance of his writing is in finding order amidst a sea of comedic chaos (from his direction of Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation, we can see it’s the brilliance of his direction as well). It’s his history that I believe led him to nail this film so squarely on the head. There certainly is a fair deal of chaos in this film, but unlike the sheer anarchy that ends the majority of his films, he’s smart enough to realize this movie is leading towards redemption. Thus, every bit of chaos Ramis drops into a scene leads into the next. Nowhere is this more clear than when he is trying to seduce Rita by creating the perfect date. If he accidentally orders the wrong drink, quotes the wrong poet, says he likes something he dislikes, the film quickly jumps forward to his attempt the next day, where he corrects his error until he creates a new one. The characters in Ramis’s previous films all knew beautifully how to take advantage of a situation, but here is a character who keeps trying to take advantage of his situation, and all of the self-serving leads to nothing.

Every actor in this film is completely on the mark. The writing is bravely smart, and the direction is crafty and full of heart. Though Ramis’s works this past decade have been hit-or-miss (though he’s directed several episodes of The Office, and I found his film noir The Ice Harvest to be underappreciated by both critics and audiences), he has no need to prove himself any further. Regardless of whether or not you’re interested in seeing his newest film Year One, I urge you to rewatch Groundhog Day or see it for the first time. Just like Phil Connors, you’ll find that you discover new things every time you relive it, and strangely enough, you may find it warms your heart in new ways each time as well.

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~ by russellhainline on June 18, 2009.

One Response to “Netflix Recommendation: Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993)”

  1. Do you tweet and have a twitter account so I can follow you?

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