Basement Songs: “Groundhog Day”
“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.”
A couple of years ago I was in a record session for the animated series, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. One of the stars of that show was Brian Doyle-Murray, the venerable character actor who has been a mainstay in comedy films and television since the late 70’s. During the session, Brian’s cell phone began to buzz, interrupting the session. Brian, the consummate professional, was a little embarrassed as he pulled out the phone to turn it off. However, when he looked at the caller ID, he paused and said, “Uh, I have to take this real quick.” Then he answered the phone, “Hey Bill, I’m in the middle of a record session.” I have no idea what he said after that because my eyes went wide and I turned around to look at the recording engineer and the voice director, who both had the same expression I did. “That’s Bill Murray on the phone,” we all said, like giddy little boys.
Obviously, Bill Murray calling his brother shouldn’t be a big deal, but to anyone who grew up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Bill Murray was king. Just even in the same room in which he was on the phone made this small group of us feel privileged. Bill Murray was the guy you imagined you could toss back a couple of beers with, discuss baseball or politics, and probably laugh your ass off for hours. I watched all of his movies on VHS at one point during the early 80’s. including the perplexing Where the Buffalo’s Roam and Murray’s first true dramatic film, The Razor’s Edge. Even though those movies didn’t work for me, I still appreciated that he was taking risks as an artist.
In 1993, Columbia Pictures release what may be argued as Murray’s greatest film achievement, Groundhog Day. I believe the film surprised a lot of people as it wasn’t your typical slapstick comedy, as we’d all come to expect from Murray. In Groundhog Day, longtime Murray fans, like me, were dazzled by the actor’s ability to incorporate the many facets of his acting career into a single performance, helping to create one of his most memorable characters, Phil Connors.
Connors is a smug, self-centered TV weatherman from Pittsburgh assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA. He drives out to the small town, accompanied by his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliot) and his new producer, bubbly Rita, played adorably by Andie MacDowell. Phil believes this news report is beneath him and treats Rita and Larry like dirt. At 6:00 AM on February 2nd, he wakes up to the sound of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” and a couple of local morning DJ’s. After a rude conversation with some of the hospitable small town people he meets at his bed and breakfast, Phil enters the town square to put in the minimal effort required so that he can quickly return home.
A blizzard traps Phil, Larry and Rita in Punxsutawney for the night and Phil goes to bed believing that he’ll return to normalcy the next morning, when he wakes up at 6:00 AM. But fate or God have a different plan for Phil Connors and when the weatherman wakes up the next morning, he discovers that he’s reliving February 2nd all over again. The very next morning, Phil stats to worry when,once again, it’s February 2nd… again. Phil is trapped in some kind of time loop where he doesn’t age and his actions have no repercussions. He can lie, cheat, steal, even get killed, and he knows that no matter what he does, he’s going to wake up the next morning and it will still be February 2nd.
At first he’s delighted with this predicament. However, Phil gradually realizes how shallow his life is and he slowly begins to change. He discovers art and music, he integrates himself into the lives of the citizens of Punxsutawney, and he falls deeply in love with Rita, even though he understands that she will never return the love back to him because she’ll forget everything the next morning, when it’s February 2nd all over again.
Groundhog Day is that rare fantasy, romantic comedy that manages to be funny, thoughtful and truly original. It succeeds for many reasons. Harold Ramis directed with a deft hand, helping Murray to create one of his most complex and enduring characters. Ramis was also responsible for reworking Danny Rubin’s original script so that the focus was squarely on Phil. The film has a magnificent supporting cast, all of whom basically play one note characters for the duration of the film, but provide enough heart and soul to their performances to make us care about them. The standout for me is Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson (Bing!), the insurance salesman Phil tries to avoid while walking down the street. MacDowell is delightful and proves to be one of the best female leads to star opposite Murray. Still, the film hinges on Bill Murray, as he is in every single scene and his character is really the only one that transforms over the course of the story.
In Phil Connors we watch a man who is coasting through life as a jerk. He’s moderately successful, but almost from the start we can see that his soul is empty. As he relives his day over and over (I read online that he may have relived the day for 10 years), he’s given thousands of opportunities to redeem himself and alter the direction of his life. Through Murray’s eyes, Connors gradually transforms. It’s a heartfelt performance with many layers that was somehow overlooked by the Academy Awards in 1993. Then again, the Academy almost always overlooks comedy and fantasy films, no matter how essential they are.
Yes, Groundhog Day is an essential film. Not only is it a smartly written and constructed motion picture, it’s one that has an important message: People can change. The world can often be a cynical place and we all need a little reminding that we’re not alone and that it’s never too late to choose a new path in life. It may take us ten years of reliving the same day, but change is possible. It’s a simple message, I’ll admit, but it’s one that bears repeating again and again until we all get it.
Here’s a look at next week’s movie: