Back Around Again
Considering our love of time travel and time loop stories on this site, it's finally time to talk about Groundhog Day. This comedy, released all the way back in 1993, became and instant hit an d seminal classic. The number of people that will watch this movie every year to commemorate the holiday (and a stupid groundhog with apparently prognostication skills) is staggering (right up there with everyone that has to watch V for Vendetta year after year). It's a movie that will live on after all of us have died.
The question I have to ask: is the film really that good? Oh, it's premise it quite remarkable (especially if you'd never seen a time loop story before, all the way back in those halcyon days of 1993). A man trapped in his own loop, not knowing why he's there or how to escape, does make for some interesting storytelling beats. Groundhog Day handles it by putting the lead character, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) through the five stages of grief, going from not understanding it to trying to make it benefit him, to just wanting his existence to end, all before finally accepting it and learning to make his time loop immortality into some kind of learning experience, to better himself. That works, and continues to work each time the film is watched.
Problem is that media doesn't exist in a vacuum and while Groundhog Day was fresh and interesting at the time, there has been a lot of shows and movies (mostly shows, to be fair) that have used the time loop conceit in different ways, and that has diluted the power of the premise. Every time a production pulls the trick they have to name-check the source, Groundhog Day, which has grown in our collective consciousness as the definitive version of this kind of story... but that doesn't mean this movie is the best take on the material. In fact, it's fair to say that were it not for one key factor the luster of this film would have quickly faded.
That factor is, of course, Bill Murray. The actor, a comedian who had stints on Saturday Night Live before becoming a comedy sensation, powering through a number of hits back in the day -- STRIPES, Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, all of them shaggy comedies that thrived off his comedic chops -- and one of the 1980s most bankable stars. It says something that the comedies of the era that are most fondle remembered seem to always have Bill Murray in them. He could take material and, with his dry delivery, make it comedy gold.
Again, the concept of Groundhog Day is great (although in fairness we have to note that the short story "Doubled and Redoubled" by Malcolm Jameson from 1941, the 1973 short story "12:01 PM" and it's movie adaptation, and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Cause and Effect" all beat Groundhog Day to the punch), but what sells it is the way Bill Murray reacts to the crap going on around him. A different actor would have handled it differently. Chevy Chase would have been silly and above it all, Dan Aykroyd would have been over the top (maybe with a fake nose), but Murray played it just right, giving a performance with emotion while still maintaining a certain dry air. It's pitch perfect for the film.
Naturally we have to mention that actually filming the movie was hell as Murray didn't want to be in the movie and was constantly terrible on set (especially to director Harold Ramis). The filming of the movie, and Murray's behavior on set, ended up souring his friendship with Ramis and it took year for them to heal that rift at all. None of that plays out on screen but in this era where was have heightened information about behind-the-scenes processes ad we have to judge people for the way they act on and off set, this is a factor that might sour Murray's performance some. Yes, he was going through stuff in his personal life but does that give him a pass for being a shit-heel while filming this movie?
Well, fans of the film certainly would say "yes". And, hey, I won't deny that in the moment I find myself getting wrapped up in the film again, at least as long as it's focused solely on Murray. It really is such a solid comedic performance about a shit-heel prima donna learning to be a better person. Maybe it works because Murray was, essentially, the character on and off set, but it's certainly one of his most human performances (this despite the fantasy at the core of the film's story).
It's when Murray isn't the sole focus of the film that the ragged edges start to show. The film is built around Murray's Phil learning that he actually likes, and then loves, his new producer, Andie MacDowell's Rita Hanson. It's sweet in concept as he slowly (knowingly or not) morphs into the kind of person she'd love. But when you pay attention to the story it's really weird. One day, from her perspective, he's a complete asshole and then the next suddenly he's the greatest guy ever, perfectly tailored to all her wants and desires, and he's madly in love with her. That's creepy stalker levels (from her perspective) you'd think. Sure, we got to see his whole evolution so it's less weird, I guess, but still pretty creepy outwardly.
It doesn't help that Andie MacDowell is utterly bland in her performance as Rita. For a while MacDowell was an "it girl" for romantic comedies (Groundhog Day, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Multiplicity) but you can also see why she didn't have a long, A-list career either. She's not terrible here it just doesn't feel like she's really invested either. Maybe it was the act that her character doesn't get an arc the same way Phil does but there just isn't much from Andie's side of the equation.
Honestly, when it comes to a love story built on top of a comedy-slash-time loop film, I prefer Palm Springs as that one has all of what works in this film but fleshed out and heightened, along with winning performance from leads Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. They both gets arcs, they both get to evolve together, and when they realize they love each other, you feel like it's earned. That's how you do this kind of story. For me, Groundhog Day feels like a rough draft of a better film to come.
That's not to take away from how well Groundhog Day worked in the moment. It really is brilliantly constructed around not only it's concept but also Bill Murray's performance. The film is the Murray Show, through and through. It's just that, end of the day, once the actual Groundhog Day is over, I don't think about this film again. It's not on my regular play loop, not like other time loop stories (like Palm Springs). In fact, I have to think that were it not for its association with an actual holiday I wouldn't go back and watch Groundhog Day nearly as often. I legitimately wonder if I'll touch this film at all in the coming year...