A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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!

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February 2, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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