A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 339 – Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day – February 2nd, 2011

Well, it was inevitable, I suppose, that we would watch this today. We might have blown New Year’s Eve by watching Strange Days way early, but we’ve learned to plan better since then (aside from missing Hogfather when we listed our movies). We’ve got a few more with set dates but this was one we nailed down pretty early on. I first saw this movie because of Andy. He loves it. And while I don’t dislike it, I regret to say that I just don’t share his love of it.

I’m not sure precisely why it is that this movie doesn’t strike the same note for me as it does for him. I mean, it’s definitely got its moments. A lot of the jokes make me smile and I like the basic premise. It just doesn’t quite all come together for me. While watching it tonight I tried to figure out why it was that it would be such an amazing experience for my husband and apparently quite a few other people and leave me somewhat flat and I have to admit I’m still puzzled. I enjoyed it a little more tonight than I remember enjoying it the last time I watched it, but it didn’t have me laughing myself sick or having any big cosmic moments. Oh well.

At its most basic core, it is the story of a jackass who needs to find a way to change himself in order to continue on in life. Jazz it up a little and you have the universe’s way of forcing him to do that: He must live out the same day, over and over and over, until he manages to do things right. And not just act them out right, but do them because he believes in them. Phil Connors is our jackass here. He’s a weather man who’s been sent to Punxsutawny to cover Groundhog Day and he hates it. He’s a jerk to the cameraman (Larry), sleazily hits on the new producer (Rita) and basically phones it in only to wake up the next morning and realize it’s not the next morning. It’s Groundhog Day all over again, with the same song playing on the radio and the same people in the bed and breakfast dining room saying the same things and the same everything happening, just like it happened the day before. He thinks he’s lost his mind. He tries to explain it all to Rita, who dismisses him because seriously, what the hell, right? And as the days go on, repeating and repeating and repeating, Phil begins to look for things to do.

Now, this is where the movie gets its humor and its drama. On the humorous side of things, Phil realizes he can do things without consequences, like stealing money and crashing a car. And he starts knowing what people will say, and readies quips and comebacks in anticipation. He memorizes the answers on Jeopardy and dumbfounds people with the things he knows. There’s a whole montage of him doing bizarre stuff. And then there’s the drama when he realizes he can kill himself and he’ll still wake up at six in the morning on February 2nd. Again. And yes, it’s presented humorously, but man, that’s some bleak stuff there. Because he doesn’t just do it once. He enumerates several different ways at one point, in addition to the three I can think of off the top of my head that happen on screen. He reaches a point where he becomes despondent, trapped in this neverending cycle of a single crappy day. And then he seems to wake up a little. He teaches himself French. He learns to play the piano. He does ice sculpture and starts to get to know every single person in the town. And since he retains information from day to day every iteration contains a Phil with more knowledge and more depth.

I think one of my issues here is that I think that’s pretty cool stuff. There’s some debate, it seems, over how many times Phil actually relives this one day, but the director (Harold Ramis) has spoken in tens of years or more. Phil doesn’t age, after all. The original writer of the story has said 10,000 years. It’s never made clear, though Phil does have an interesting conversation with Rita late in the movie, where he lays it all out for her, going through the cafe they’re in and telling her about every person in it. “Maybe God uses tricks,” he tells her. “Maybe he’s just been around a long time.” He says he’s immortal (and he could be! I mean, look at that overcoat – he could totally have a sword under there) and seems resigned to the implications that brings. And that conversation is fascinating to me. It makes this character far more interesting than the rest of the movie makes him for me. And then there’s a rather somber bit where Phil realizes he can’t save someone. There’s a homeless man who’s been there every time, but when Phil actually tries to help him it turns out he dies. He dies every day. There is no stopping it. As I said, that’s bleak. And yet this rather bleak and somber and serious stuff is all played down against the background of this jackass’s humorous redemption. And I guess I don’t feel they’re balanced terribly well.

There’s a love story in here, with Phil hitting on Rita at first and then realizing he doesn’t just want to get into her pants, he really does like her. He grows to love her – and for him, over the course of however many repeats of this day, I won’t deny the possibility. At first he just plays the right role, ending with her getting pissed off when she realizes it was an act. There’s a montage of Rita slapping Phil for good reason. And he’s not quite sure at first how to fix this. How to make her actually like him. Only after countless repeats and attempts does he manage to do it. And okay, that’s presented mostly seriously in that he works towards winning her over in earnest. But it’s the sort of love story tenderness that you get in any comedy-heavy rom-com. It’s goofball romance. Which is all well and good, but it still doesn’t quite work for me with the other serious stuff.

I have read that Harold Ramis wanted the movie to be more on the comedic side whereas Bill Murray wanted to go for more of the philosophical aspect and I have to say I side with Murray on this one. The comedy makes great moments and asides, but really, if we can get what, eight or nine slaps in sequence for humorous effect, why not at least give us a couple of iterations of Phil failing to save the homeless man. There’s really only two scenes there and it feels like it’s meant to be this big emotional turning point for Phil but it’s given less attention, which frustrates me. And I think it’s because I’m picky when it comes to rom-com stuff, but a good time-loop plot with philosophy hits my buttons. It would also have been nice to have Rita be more than a prize for Phil’s spiritual growth, but well, rom-com.

All that being said, if I cut out the philosophical parts, or detach them from the rom-com parts, and focus on the funny stuff? Yeah, it’s good. Bill Murray plays his typical cynical jackass with a heart of (fool’s) gold but he does have fantastic comic timing. He nails things like every exchange with his old classmate from high school, and the bit near the end where he’s just tooling around town fixing everything he’s ever found that goes wrong. And Andie MacDowell as Rita plays a good foil for him, not taking his crap and remaining skeptical about the changes going on in him up until the very end, which sells the transformation nicely. There are some fun bit parts, like Steven Tobolowsky as Phil’s old classmate and Brian Doyle-Murray as one of the groundhog wranglers. I have no complaints about the acting or the premise. I guess when you get down to it, it’s that I want there to be “Who Wants to Live Forever” playing over the end credits and instead there’s the song Weatherman. Oh well. Not every movie can be Highlander.

February 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Groundhog Day

February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day

We’ve known what movie we were going to watch on February second and I, for one, have been looking forward to it with the greatest of anticipation. I have a great fondness for this movie. Not only does it have a great premise and a fun payoff but it makes me laugh. When I first saw this in the theater I nearly fell off my chair laughing and my ribs ached afterwards.

Probably part of the attraction for me has its root in my affection for video games. I am intimately familiar with the rigours of doing the same thing over and over and over again until you get it right. Vast swaths of my life in the past couple years have been taken up by Mass Effect and Dragon Age, both of which are games I’ve played through multiple times simply to see how changing my actions can change the attitudes of characters in the game and the outcome. In the context of these worlds I feel somewhat like Phil does by the end of this movie – I know every person in the game, I know every possible plot twist, and I take pride in my ability to choose the best possible path with the brightest outcomes for everybody. (Leliana, for example, quite likes shoes and Sten has a deeply hidden fondness for cookies.) I know what it’s like to die over and over again and just dust yourself off and try again. The big difference is that I am choosing to restore from a saved game whereas Phil is trapped against his own will.

Phil Connors, you see, is re-living the same day over, and over, and over again. At the start of the film he is simply an egotistical weather man on assignment to cover Groundhog Day, but soon he discovers that he is under some kind of unexplained curse. Every morning he wakes up to the sound of Sonny and Cher’s I’ve Got You Babe on the clock radio and finds himself once again in the quaint Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney. At first he is confused by this circumstance, but over time he begins to learn to cope. He gets to know the inhabitants of the town. He learns just what happens in every nook of his domain. It is unclear by the end of the movie just how long he has been trapped in this loop, but at the very least it is years. Perhaps decades. Or even centuries. It’s the concept of the movie that intrigues me most. Phil is essentially immortal, and over time he begins to feel that he’s omniscient, since he knows everything and everybody involved in this one day in Punxsutawney.

There’s a clear character arc here, and it’s a fun one too, but it’s not the primary draw of the film for me. Phil starts out as a raving ego-maniac and this egotism leads him to treat the townsfolk as playthings for a while. He learns everything about them and manipulates them. Eventually however he becomes bored with this and starts to realize that he’s falling in love with his producer Rita. She never falls for his hokum – never lets him manipulate her (though he does try.) Eventually he realizes that this eternity he’s trapped in is an opportunity to better himself, and help some of the people he’s come to know.

This is one of those intimate movies about a single character where the same person is on screen in every single scene. It really needs a stron leading man who can sell the cadish nature of Phil at the outset and eventually bring this character to redemption. I honestly cannot picture anybody besides Bill Murray in this part. He has just the right roguish charm, and just enough soulfulness to make us believe that his character is tortured by his eternal purgatory. Likewise Andie MacDowell is perfect as Rita. She’s got a simple charm with her cute pout and her lovely accent, but she also is able to project a no-nonsense self assurance which is essential for the movie. When Phil is at his most sleazy, trying to charm her out of her pants by learning everything he can about her likes and dislikes she is able to see through him. Only when he’s being honest with her does she begin to fall for him.

As I read up on the movie while reviewing it I found that there was a massive row between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis who co-wrote and directed this movie. I found this kind of shocking because I wouldn’t think that so polished and enjoyable a movie could result when the star and director had strongly diverging visions of where the tone of the piece. Really this movie is a fantastic example of directing and particularly of editing. The film fan in me loves the notion that alternate takes, something normally relegated to the cutting room floor (or whatever digital equivalent there is now that nobody “cuts” a film any more,) are kind of what this movie is about. As Phil lives his day over and over we get to see him encountering the same situations over and over and reacting to them differently. Naturally all of these takes would have to have been filmed on the same day, so all the different encounters with Ned “Needlehead” Ryerson on the street corner would have been filmed one right after another (maybe even alternate versions mixed together so that Ramis could have all the versions from one angle, then re-set and get another angle, then shoot coverage.) It must have been a monumental task of organization, not to mention the effort of keeping track of Phil’s character arc. Murray must have played several different Phils every day. It makes my head spin just to think of it.

The end result is, like the similarly themed Run Lola Run, one of my favorite movies. I wish that I could have the same adventure Phil has. I wish that I could have an eternity to better myself in a single day. And after all these years I still find myself laughing at Murray’s antics, in love with MacDowell’s tenderness and charmed by the eventual redemption of Phil. Happy Groundhog Day everyone!

February 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment