#45 — Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
I started working on a movie news and review program at my college radio station in the fall of 1990. This was when Siskel & Ebert were still at the height of their popularity and influence, and my cohort and I decided that we needed some way to regularly close out of review segments, something that provided as clean and convenient of a button as the famed Chicago critics’ pronouncements of which way their respective thumbs were pointing. We settled on a star rating, using the four star scale that seemed most common among professional critics. It proved very useful for me as I started developing the skill of articulating the reasoning behind my reaction to films. I usually came out of the theater with an idea of what star rating I’d assign a film, and then found my way to that rating in the writing process, often finding that I shifted my numeric assessment after grappling with the particulars of any given film. The unique place that Groundhog Day holds in my personal mythos is that it’s the only film that I changed my star rating to a more laudatory number during the course of the on-air discussion, changing my mind as my partner and I talked about its various strengths.

All these years later, I hold Groundhog Day in even higher regard, a fitting evolution for a film that is about living a single day over and over again, studying it from every conceivable angle. The dense, insightful screenplay credited to Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis never explains why weatherman Phil Connors finds himself endlessly waking up anew on February 2nd to the sounds of “I Got You Babe” and inane morning show banter. There’s no crack of lightning, no creaky mystic who curses him for his egotism or avarice. It just is, and the film is about Phil’s multitude of approaches to the maddening redundancy. And when the problem is solved, when Phil is freed from his metaphysical Mobius strip, it is also without some pat explanation, just a vague sense that his liberation occurs because he finally, after countless attempts, simply got the day right.

Besides the invention of the script and the deft, unfussy expertise of Ramis’s directing, the film is enlivened and enriched by the lead performance by Bill Murray. On the surface, the film seems not so different from many other comedies in the earlier portion of his career, but Murray’s approach is noticeably different, a harbinger of the soulful work he’d do for independently-minded directors like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola in the future. There was always a hint of darkness in Murray’s comedy, a singe around the edges. He retains that in Groundhog Day while adding undercurrents of melancholy, a strong sense that some of his trademark smart-aleck abrasiveness is masking inner emotional dissatisfaction. Among the many rewards of Groundhog Day one of the most lasting is watching Bill Murray transform from a comic who acts to an actor with some comedic chops.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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