Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)

If you think watching the same movie every week can drive you nuts, try living each day like there’s no tomorrow, whether you want to or not. Groundhog Day follows cynical TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) as he reluctantly makes the trek to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the rodent-centric festivities of the titular holiday. Keeping him company are his chipper producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and his sarcastic cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot), who manage to get on his nerves at every turn. To make matters worse, Phil quickly discovers that it is never not Groundhog Day, and oh my god, why am I writing about this movie like you’ve never heard of it?

Alright, if you really know nothing about this flick, I’ll be nice and give it a proper review, but we’re gonna get all up in this movie in big fat spoiler-y ways, so if you managed to miss this one, just skip to the end when you start seeing bullet points.

THE STORY:
This really is a concept that you can wind up and let go… and it’s fantastic. Phil Connors wakes up every day at 6am in the same town on the same day with the same people. Sound like your work week? Well, Phil’s day is identical down to every last detail. The song on the radio, the forecast, the breakfast, the morning small talk, the damn groundhog… it’s all an identical copy of yesterday. And when Phil settles down to sleep at night, he automatically quantum leaps back to 6am in the same town on the same day with the same people. For a grump like Phil, it’s just a path to deeper levels of crankiness.

Sounds like somebody’s got a nightmarish, unending torrent of the Mondays.

And just why is this happening to Phil? He has no idea, and neither do we. This temporal loop doesn’t appear to be something that can be solved, only… tolerated. And watching Phil come up with new ways to deal with it, while taking in the advantages and disadvantages of the existential hell he’s been doomed to, manages to be surprisingly interesting. One might approach this premise with skepticism, that’s there’s no potential for a real story, but the natural progression of Phil’s ups and downs is somewhat comparable to watching someone deal with death. And in a dark but humorous sense, hasn’t Phil become a dead man? Oooooh, deep.

Yeah, don’t watch this with philosophy majors.

THE ACTING:
While praise for this film should be distributed evenly among the entire cast and crew, I don’t think it’s too blasphemous to say that the movie could have been an absolute disaster without Bill Murray.

When I think “wisecracking charming dickhead,” I think Bill Murray, and this is a role that requires all three of those elements in the proper proportions. This experience makes Phil constantly adjust the sliders on each of these traits until he can finally come to terms with a life of February 2nds in Punxsutawney. When he’s an asshole, he manages to display potential for warmth. When he tries to accept his situation with positivity, he doesn’t metamorphose into a smiling automaton; there’s still remnants of a sharp-tongued realist underneath his sunshine demeanor.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
Not applicable, which is absolutely the right move for a film like this. There are no blasts of light or wacky warps; the only thing taking us back in time is the simple click of an alarm clock. Instead of effects, the cinematography and editing help in making us feel the weight of time bearing down on Phil.

OTHER STUFF (FOR PEOPLE WHO’VE SEEN IT):

  • There are many ways to interpret this movie. Today, I found myself seeing Groundhog Day as a metaphor for the process of filmmaking itself. While I’m certainly not the first to notice this, I couldn’t get away from seeing the patterns as I watched. Phil performs take after take after take of several “scenes,” but try as he might, he simply can’t force everything to be perfect. There has to be something natural to the whole thing. Rita represents his target audience; repeatedly, she rejects him because something just seems “off” about his whole approach. He continues to make greater changes in his day, eventually focusing not just on Rita, but on everybody who witnesses his actions. He’s starting to learn that his day (his film) has to connect with everyone. We see moments of him coming to terms with problems he has no way to overcome; I saw this as analogous to the limits of filmmaking (time, budget, technology). At one point he even tells Rita the situation he’s in, but a filmmaker can’t just announce that a film is difficult to make and expect it to be seen as a masterpiece. A perfect film isn’t about how it came to be, it’s the film itself that captivates. Finally, Phil realizes that he’s not pleased with himself and attempts to become a better person; it’s then and only then, when the entire audience and the filmmaker are satisfied, that he’s ready to move on to his next project.

It’s kind of like Stanley Kubrick: The Ride.

  • Another way to interpret this movie: what would it take to turn Peter Venkman into Ray Stantz? (Sorry, Ty.)
  • I used to hate that Phil just kind of breaks the cycle because he becomes a better person. Robert McKee likes to talk about how a good film can’t contain events that just “happen,” but I’m completely okay with that in this movie. So yeah, if you think that Gawd was looking down on Phil and let him out of his cage once he stopped being a douchebag, fine, neat movie. But I find it far more fascinating if Phil was caught in a legitimately scientific time-fart that naturally broke down after, say, 849 years, 6 months, and 13 days. That still lends itself to the same positive message; when faced with that much repetition, Phil had to make himself into someone he (and everyone else) could stand to be around. That still gives me happy fuzzies. What do you think?
  • Groundhog Day does suffer a bit from the same problem that plagues other supernatural “what if?” movies like Bruce Almighty or Click: it’s way more fun to watch somebody use his powers for Bastard than for Good. What sets this film apart from those two examples, however, is that it isn’t fucking stupid.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Phil Connors is fairly light on the freak-outs. His moments of confusion typically take the form of somber brooding.

“I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always February 2nd.
And there’s nothing I can do about it.”

FINAL THOUGHTS:
I know people who hate Groundhog Day, perhaps because they find it too sappy or, bafflingly, too repetitive. (I assume these people also found Inception “too surreal” and The Matrix “too computer.”) They can certainly make their arguments, but while I have my own pessimistic streaks, this movie lifts my spirits more often than not, and much like Back to the Future, it’s a light-hearted modern fairy tale that uses time travel to show us the importance of self-improvement. Also, they couldn’t have picked a better holiday. As a New Englander, it’s about this time of year that it feels like winter’s never going to end. At least watching Groundhog Day can help you prepare for the worst.

NEXT WEEK:
Somewhere in Time (1980)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.