Punxsutawney Philanthropy: Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993) – Blu-ray review
A high-concept comedy which realises that, the higher you build, the more room there is for depth. Structurally, intellectually, emotionally, it’s perfect.
(Harold Ramis, 1993)
There were many films in 1993 – from Falling Down to Indecent Proposal – whose high-concept premises sparked debate in the media about the real-life ramifications of their subject matter. But there was only one film that year that had such a grip it actually brought a new concept into mainstream recognition that is still used today. Everybody knows what a ‘Groundhog Day’ is and, aptly, that longevity is entirely down to the skill with which director Harold Ramis and writer Danny Rubin transcend the specifics of one man’s turmoil to create an utterly universal allegory.
This is one of cinema’s most eloquent statements of existentialism, asking a single question – “what would you do if you had to live the same day over and over?” – and probing it with as much intellectual rigour as there is wit and generosity on display. The story stems from the same wellspring as other ‘What If?’ tales, notably the similarly small-town homilies of It’s A Wonderful Life, but this takes greater liberties with form and structure, to become a cascade of possibilities to match the cards that Phil Connors spends six months perfecting how to throw into a hat.
So, what would you do? The film ponders the negatives – lust, greed, despair and godlike control – before recognising that the true answer lies embedded in the hero’s name: Phil-anthropy. It’s crucial to the story’s conception that Connors is a weatherman, not only in plot terms (although how clever is the device of the blizzard to strand the characters in town with nothing to do except talk to each other?) but as a metaphor for Fate. The misanthropic Connors believes he has existence pegged, proclaiming with the certainty of the cynic that the blizzard will pass and that people are morons. So the timewarp takes him at face value: OK, go ahead, have a go at being the architect of your world. In It’s A Wonderful Life, Capra is still dealing with a deus ex machina: literally, God gets involved in George Bailey’s life. Here, in true postmodern form, there’s no explanation for what happens, beyond the solipsism of modern man being taken to surreal, absurd extremes.
It’s hilarious, obviously, but more profound is the sense of reality being discovered anew. In that sense, while Rubin’s story is often praised as being too good to botch, much of the film’s greatness lies in Ramis’ handling of things. There is an adventurous editing strategy throughout that forces us to concentrate on his shot choices to an unusual degree. Ned Ryerson’s ubiquity is suggested by the same, increasingly claustrophobic medium shot… but the unfeeling clarity of the alarm clock cannot be shaken however extreme the close-up. Meanwhile, repetition and ellipsis guide us through the day, zoning in on details like the extras, forcing us to keep pace – but subtly, the centre of repetition shifts from breakfast to the groundhog’s forecast to the diner and finally bedtime, mapping out the day a bit at a time until we see Phil’s perfect day.
If you’re so inclined, you could judge the whole thing as a metaphor for the experience of watching a film. Take the inspired sequence where Connors executes a perfect heist, simply because he’s been able to rewind and rewatch the sequence of events until he’s mastered the timing. It’s a reminder that Groundhog Day is a key text of the VHS era, looking beyond the immediate thrill of the single viewing to reward rewatchability – and, credit where it’s due, Rubin came up with this over a decade before Hollywood make the connection explicit in Adam Sandler comedy Switch.
And, with it, comes something that’s actually quite rare in a Hollywood movie: character development. Phil begins the day as ‘default Bill Murray’ before the actor gamely deconstructs his own persona, gradually revealing the romantic behind the flippant surface via bleak detours into suicidal pain. In the film’s best, least predictable outcome, this actually changed the focus of Bill Murray’s career. After this, he simply couldn’t go back to Act 1 Phil Connors, paving the way for his reinvention as indie icon and dramedy pioneer for Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch. It’s a wonderful case of life imitating art: after this, how could Murray bear to continue on a Groundhog career?