WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Dismayed at spending a fourth consecutive year covering Punxsatawney’s Groundhog Day festival, grumpy weatherman Phil Connors is upset when a blizzard traps him, cameraman Larry and producer Rita in the sleepy town. He is even more upset when he wakes up to find he has to re-live the day again. And again. And again…
The premise of Harold Ramis’ incredibly successful film is so simple, it is a surprise to find that it is a wholly original idea, as far as I can tell. It is obligatory to call the film Kafkaesque, and it does recall the sometimes dark but ultimately redemptive It’s a Wonderful Life; but more than that comparison, I can compliment Groundhog Day by noting that the film’s title has passed into common parlance, an accolade rarely achieved in the arts (I can only think, in recent history, of Catch-22.)
The film’s effectiveness comes largely from its unfussy nature, as it quickly establishes the characters and their lives on and before ‘Groundhog Day’ (February 2nd), before playing out the fantastical scenario. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a regional TV weatherman who, unlike Larry (Chris Elliott) and Rita (Andie MacDowell), his fellow travellers to Punxsutawney, is bored of the trip and its quaint, small-town ways. Phil, his eyes on national exposure, is cynical and short with his colleagues, and flirts with Rita in a jaded way; even so, Murray manages to make him a likeable character whilst he is being a jerk.
The first Groundhog Day passes by speedily and when the second comes the film – largely due to an excellent script (by Ramis and Danny Rubin) and great work by Murray – reveals Phil’s predicament with style and humour, without recourse to banal explanations. As the day unfolds time and again, the rhythm of Phil’s reactions follows a natural course: at first fearful, then looking to exploit the situation, then despairing, before finally evaluating his life and seeing what he can do for others during his day, rather than what he can get for himself.
Particularly good are the potentially morbid suicide attempts, which are not only funny but show that the film’s central idea is explored exhaustively. The way Phil’s fondness for Rita grows is also well handled; at first he has a lovely day with her but subsequently he forces the issue, getting slapped earlier and earlier in the evening.
Though the town of Punxsutawney contains a good supporting cast, all of whom Phil gets to know during his confinement in February 2nd, Groundhog Day impresses because the mechanism of the repeated day is played largely through the reactions of four characters. It is worth saying again that Murray is brilliant; Stephen Tobolowsky is an entertaining annoyance as insurance salesman and old school acquaintance Ned, and Elliott is pleasantly easy-going as Larry. Furthermore, despite harbouring a doubt that Rita is genuinely interesting enough for Phil to fall in love with, I will put aside any Four Weddings and a Funeral prejudices and admit that MacDowell is very good in this film. The script calls for her (and the others) to react slightly differently to almost-identical situations as the day is repeated, and they all do a great job.
If I were to be incredibly picky, I might argue that Phil’s good deeds and accomplishments as he learns the piano and ice-sculpting are just another way to impress the girl, but it has to be said that his unsuccessful efforts to save an old man’s life are really affecting. And Groundhog Day as a whole is an affecting film to watch; after all, you cannot really begrudge a funny and intelligent movie which says that looking out for others, and falling properly in love, are the keys to being truly happy.