Readers who had the misfortune to see Year One (2009) may doubt this, but there was a time not too long ago when Harold Ramis was considered one of the sharper comedy filmmakers in the business. Co-Writing and Acting in two Ghostbuster films, as well as Directing Analyse This, he certainly made his mark felt on Late 80’s and 90’s cinema. But he will, perhaps, be best remembered for Groundhog Day, a 1993 feature film on which he acted as co-writer and director (he also takes on a small supporting role as a doctor).
An overlong but original blend of comedy, drama and romance (emphasis on the comedy) it continues to feature in ‘greatest film’ lists almost 20 years after its release, and remains Ramis’s best film, and one of the best comedies of the 90’s, if not quite the masterpiece its reputation suggests.
Following a rather bland opening sequence (fast moving clouds), and wonderfully jaunty piece of title music (sadly not featuring heavily in the film) we are introduced to Phil Connors (Bill Murray) a egocentric, sarcastic (and rather rude) Weatherman: ‘Out in California they’ll have warm Weather tomorrow, gang wars and some very overpriced real estate. Up in the Pacific Northwest as you can see, they’re going to have some very, very tall trees…’
His attitude to work and his colleagues has not gone un-noted however, and for the fourth year in a row he is sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the local Groundhog Day festivities. Every February 2nd locals gather to see a Groundhog (named Punxsutawney Phil) emerge from his nest, and dependant or not on whether he sees his shadow ‘predict’ if the town will see a few more weeks of winter.
Accompanying the reluctant presenter are rookie Producer Rita (Andie MacDowell in a charming performance) and jovial cameraman Larry (a less memorable Chris Elliot).
Once there Phil reluctantly gives his report then persuades the others to leave town as quickly as possible. Much to his annoyance a freak blizzard shuts down the roads out of town and the trio are forced to bed down in Punxsutawney for another night.
Although in the preceding twenty minutes there are several killer one liners (‘This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather’), it is here that Groundhog Day really kicks off.
Phil wakes up the next day, and to his mingled bemusement and annoyance the snow has seemingly totally cleared overnight, whilst the ‘guys on the radio are playing yesterday’s tape’. Walking downstairs, bemusement turns to outright confusion, and quickly, fear, when he realises that everyone else in the hotel, in fact in the town, is repeating their actions of the previous day.
It soon becomes clear to Phil that he is stuck in a time loop that only he is aware of, his initial shock turning alternatively to joy (he becomes efficient at the piano, hijacks a car and robs a security truck amongst other things, rightly confident that his actions will go unpunished) and despair (the film features the most awkwardly amusing suicide attempts in 90’s cinema) as he is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over again.
As the weeks wear on he falls in love, and becomes increasingly desperate to find a way out of the cycle, whilst gradually realising he now has a chance to become a better person…though of course he has a lot of fun in the process…
It’s a neat concept, one that could prove too complex or repetitive in the wrong hands, thankfully Ramis is more than up to the task, in both his main roles. The film is expertly scripted throughout (Ramis worked from a draft by primary Screenwriter Danny Rubin), a number of memorable one liners (mostly from Phil’s mouth) feature, none of the main characters come across as short changed, in what is essentially Murray’s show, and for something potentially confusing the film is very well structured and inventive in the way it ‘repeats’ scenes to the audience, but most importantly, the film is quickly, and consistently very, very funny.
Ramis’s background as a comic actor is immediately evident, he gets strong performances out of the leads, contributes some of the best lines to the witty script, and has a wonderful sense of comic timing and structure (the humour veers from the absurd to inspired, but always feels totally convincing as a whole), making the film’s odd premise much easier to accept. It’s hard to think of another film where suicide and kidnap attempts provide belly laughs, yet still move you as an audience member.
The film is confidently shot and edited; the few ‘set pieces’ (A chaotic night-time car chase, and a…snowball fight, for instance) providing welcome departure from the dialogue scenes, though they never jettison the films basis in character and comedy.
Ramis’s is remarkably successful in staging the same sequences repeatedly, there are few noticeable continuity errors, running gags largely remain fresh and funny (though you do begin to wonder why Phil doesn’t just change his daily routine-if I were bumping into Ned every day I certainly would!), though, there may be too little of the town shown in the film for some viewers (on the other hand it was probably better not to show what Phil would have got up to in an public swimming pool…)-the walk through the town park for instance does get a little repetitive (and the song being sung in the bandstand grows ever more irritating).
For some viewers the thought of watching the same scene repeat half a dozen times may not be a particularly enticing one, nor seem a very innovative concept for a film (the most cynical may view the central concept as an excuse to cut production costs). Whilst such viewers do have a point-the film does occasionally over extend itself (it is perhaps, ten minutes too long), and Ramis’s cameo (amongst other scenes) comes across as self-indulgent, by and large it succeeds its keeping a one-gag premise feel fresh, due in no small part due to Murray’s warm, understated performance, arguably a career best (somewhat surprising considering the character he’s playing).
Generating laughs with ease, but handling the tragedy of the character equally well he anchors the film (there is rarely a camera shot without him), and bounces off Macdowell to create a delightful onscreen pairing. Though Phil remains a resolute bastard for much of the film, he quickly becomes a likeable bastard all the same, just one more oddity at the heart of a very odd, yet very likeable film.
The supporting cast have varying degrees of relevance and screen time in the film, and the performances differ likewise. Some of the cast seem unaware it’s a comedy (whilst some of the extras seem unaware it’s a film) but Stephen Tobolowsky comes close to stealing Murray’s thunder in a brilliant turn as annoying Insurance salesman Ned ‘Bing!’ Ryerson (who finds himself on the receiving end of the most satisfying screen punch of the 90’s), it’s the mark of a good comedy when even the most annoying characters make you wish they had more screentime…
Even the obligatory love story entertains, though bordering on cliché at points (you just know that Phil will fall for the woman furthest from his personality) it’s a charming (and hilarious) bedrock on which the film is anchored, and provides further meat for two excellent lead performances…and an excellent slapping montage.
As mentioned not everyone will find the central concept agreeable, but all the same there is often pleasure to be had in watching the same scenes play out slightly differently (the film has great ‘replay value’-many critics have commented on noticing new things on subsequent viewings), Phil’s increasing exasperation, and the ignorance of his fellows proving ample opportunity for great running gags to reach their true mileage (waking up to the same banter on the radio, treading in the same puddle, for instance). Somewhat boldly Ramis never provides answers on how or why Phil was cursed (a mooted voodoo curse sub-plot was mercifully jettisoned from the shooting script), it may be a cause of annoyance for a minority of viewers, but it’s a testament to the script-you simply don’t care to find out, the vagueness being part of the magic, Phil’s story being the emotional hook.
Punxsutawney may at first glance seem a little odd of a setting for a comedy (though ‘odd’ is a definite benefit to the film) and it isn’t one that will necessarily find immediate favour with non-American audiences, used to Hollywood excess and flashy production design (some of the towns inhabitants veer towards stereotype, and the ‘set pieces’ and few and far between).
But that’s precisely the point, by and large this isn’t an overtly ‘American’ film, or a ‘Hollywood Comedy’, the ‘small town’ setting and lack of Hollywood stars (Murray excluded) actually end up being benefits. It’s smaller scale than many other comedies, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm, the smaller budget and scope forcing ever more inventive gags and a greater emphasis on character, despite its premise, this is really quite a universal film.
In some ways then, it is a shame that Ramis surrenders the film to a predictable (and rather sudden) happy ending. Although it still feels like it fits with the preceding narrative, and certainly ends the film on a high, you can’t help but wish for something a little more surprising.
Put simply Groundhog Day isn’t quite as clever as its thinks it is; an overlong mid-section, occasional clunkyness, and annoyingly predictable resolution to the story, mar an otherwise well structured, well-made film. Despite this, Groundhog Day is largely a triumph, it’s optimistic heart, the warm performances, and some very crass humour combine together to make an odd, but compelling (and very funny) mesh, that is sure to entertain audiences who can accept its central concept.
Not quite a masterpiece, but very nearly a classic.