Friday, July 17, 2009

Groundhog Day

Phil (Bill Murray): "Do you ever have deja vu, Mrs. Lancaster?"
Mrs. Lancaster (Angela Paton): "I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen."

Whatever Sonny Bono and Cher were paid in royalties for the use of their song "I Got You, Babe" in the film Groundhog Day (1993), it couldn't possibly have been enough, since no one who has seen the film can ever hear the song without thinking of Phil Conners being awakened by it a few hundred times at 6 am in his bed & breakfast in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Since its release, this Harold Ramis film has inspired a cottage industry of pseudo-metaphysical speculation among film critics, scholars, and buffs, based on what the film suggests when a clever but misanthropic Pittsburgh weatherman finds himself trapped in a time loop in the small town of Punxsutawney on the day, February 2nd, that local lore says that a groundhog emerges from its burrow and the following six weeks of weather are prognosticated from its seeing its shadow or not. In farmer's almanac terms, fair weather on that day augurs foul weather to come. A meteorologist would explain it in terms of a high pressure system from Canada. But exactly how six more weeks of weather is extrapolated from the weather data of a particular day is still a mystery. So the groundhog's prediction is probably as trustworthy as the National Weather Service's, which still cannot predict with an acceptable degree of accuracy what the weather will be like in the next 24 hours. But that is the curious conflict at the heart of the film - the cocksure scientist (Phil Conners) pitted against a rodent and the townsfolk who celebrate its control over their imaginations.

Who has done this to Phil? And why? Even Phil, after innumerable Groundhog Days, doesn't have an answer: "Maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He's not omnipotent. He's been around so long He knows everything." Well, maybe. Rita, Phil's pretty producer (Andie Macdowell, who is just one year older than I), has her own theories: "Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don't know, Phil. Maybe it's not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it." But it's only after he fails, for the umpteenth time, to seduce Rita and fails to kill himself after several attempts (1) and fails to save the old beggar (Les Podewell) from dying because it's "just his time" that Phil decides to find a better use for his never ending day, by reading every book about music he can find and taking piano lessons. Again, Ramis won't specify exactly what turned this worm, but his glib metaphysics is just enough for the purposes of a comedy - even one with such a pseudo-serious subtext.

If anyone isn't convinced of the cruelty of Phil being stranded on a perpetual February 2nd (2), they need only imagine what it must be like for everyone else in Punxsutawney, not knowing that they're just as stuck in groundhog hell as Phil. Sitting in a bowling alley with a pair of the town's heavy drinkers, Gus (Rick Ducommon) and Ralph (Rick Overton), Phil asks them "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing that you did mattered?" To which Ralph wearily replies, "That about sums it up for me."

As a funny man, Bill Murray was always a little too good for laughs alone. Since his Oscar nomination for his semi-serious performance in Sofia Coppola's semi-serious Lost in Translation (2003), he has embarked on a new career as an "actor". Groundhog Day is probably the best of his comedy roles, and he is certainly more likable than usual. Andie Macdowell is pretty and wholesome as Rita, but it would've been nice to see what an actress might have done with the role.

Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin fashioned an excellent script from Rubin's story, and Phil's wisecracks are sufficiently funny to keep the film from taking itself too seriously. But some critics seem determined to turn this effective comedy into something it isn't - into some kind of existentialist statement.(3) Effective, truly funny comedies are rare enough without having to sacrifice one to bogus metaphysics. Woody Allen is one of the most gifted comic writers of his generation, but because he never took his gift seriously - the gift of laughter - he took a questionable detour into territory where his gifts forsook him (Interiors, Stardust Memories, et al). Groundhog Day is a fantasy-comedy that avoids pretension by playing for laughs. And it wins.

(1) Phil tells Rita: "I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. And every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender."
(2) A fun parlor game is estimating how many times Phil relives Groundhog Day. The film supplies a few clues. For example, he tells his "date" before entering a movie theater that he loves the film Heidi II [there is no such film] and that he's seen it "over a hundred times".
(3) As Phil learns with the honey pot Nancy Taylor (Marita Geraghty), some people will believe anything when they want to.

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