Groundhog Day: A film that gets better every time you watch it
James R | On 02, Feb 2017
Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Bill Murray, Andie Macdowell
Watch Groundhog Day online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Repetition is a tricky thing to pull off. It’s true. Repetition is a tricky thing to pull off. It’s one of many reasons that Groundhog Day is so widely appreciated by everyone from casual popcorn-munchers to ardent film obsessives: it takes skill to make a film in which the same things happen over and over again without becoming, well, repetitive. Harold Ramis’ comedy not only manages that, but it manages to be funny, sweet, sad, smart and profound. Over and over again.
20 odd years on, the story of Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a weather man who heads to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day ritual, might sound like a dated premise. Especially when you factor in a budding romance with TV producer Rita (Andie Macdowell) and the fact that the concept of winter coming is now firmly associated with a certain HBO fantasy series. But this 1993 movie is deceptively timeless, not just because it reaches for deeper philosophical themes of life, self-improvement, love and mortality, but because it doesn’t contain a single pop culture reference. No one talks about Take That’s Relight My Fire. No one parodies Basic Instinct. No one jokes about the election of Bill Clinton. It’s a film that could take place in almost any year, if you can forgive the bad hair, boring clothes and lack of 4K resolution.
It’s a tiny detail, but Harold Ramis’ production is built on tiny details – it’s a film that relies on our ability to recognise even the smallest gesture. That’s partly for comic effect, as we laugh at scenes altering by sometimes the smallest margin. But it’s also to capture the never-ending nature of Phil’s cycle of small-town limbo. Pembroke J. Herring’s editing is a masterclass in montage, cutting between iterations of events with a shorthand that relies upon the audience’s ability to connect dots – as the time loops continue, we see less and less of the introductory vignettes, as the movie trusts us to know what’s already taken place, so that it can spend time subverting our expectations of what’s going to take place.
Ramis and Danny Rubin’s script is equally precise, slowly varying conversations and pulling exchanges into new directions with a wit and pace that believes we can keep up – and exploits that endlessly. Just as there are no references to date the story, there are also no explanations either: we don’t know why Phil is stuck is Punxsutawney, and we don’t even know how long he’s been there (theories on the web stem from days to weeks to decades). During that purgatory of an existence, Phil learns to play the piano, becomes a snow sculptor and may even study to be a doctor – and, along the way, begins to learn everyone around him by name. It’s not long (for us, safe in chronological reality) until he declares himself a god of the town – a manic realisation borne out of his many, many attempts to commit suicide, by driving off a cliff or by electrocuting himself with a toaster in the bath.
It’s a dark, disturbing moment – another superb piece of editing – and it only reinforces why Bill Murray is one of the few actors who could pull this role off. Murray, who entered similar territory with twisted A Christmas Carol adaptation Scrooged, is the king of cynical put-downs, able to sneer at the locals around Phil with an unrivalled deadpan cruelty. But he’s also a genuinely charismatic performer, and his gradual softening over 100 minutes is a glimpse of the tender, quieter performer who would later star in Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers; Groundhog Day is a rare chance for him to showcase his full range, a range that’s all the more striking when set against an unchanging background.
Except, of course, the background does change. One intrepid YouTuber has recut the film into one single loop, playing out each day alongside each other. It’s a technical triumph, but it also highlights just how elegeantly intricate the movie’s presentation is. While the start of Groundhog Day is dominated by close-ups of Phil, Murray’s overcast expressions easily hogging our attention, DoP John Bailey gradually pulls back as we spend more time with him.
By the end of the film, breakfast in the diner has moved from a string of shot/reverse shots to a two-shot with both Phil and Rita on-screen to a medium shot with three people: Phil, Rita and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). By the time we’re at a bar during the town’s evening Groundhog celebrations, the camera moves away from Phil entirely to show us Larry attempting to pick up a woman on his own. Likewise, the party scene features a musical number where Phil plays the piano – and the camera stays focused on the crowd, rather than him. We go from a sex scene between Phil and Nancy to a zoomed out shot of a gazebo, as Rita and Phil spend a more sincere night together. While the opening shots of Phil’s alarm clock get bigger and slower, the frame elsewhere gradually becomes more filled with people and objects, gently echoing the way that Phil’s self-centred outlook becomes more generous and considerate of others.
From the music and the camerawork to the cast and the dialogue, it’s that attention to detail that makes Groundhog Day such a success, allowing us to sit back and enjoy Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson (“Bing!”) or sing along to I Got You Babe with familiar affection. It takes no small effort to assemble such a perfect movie, and Groundhog Day makes it look easy. Repetition is a tricky thing to pull off. It’s true. And it’s something that you appreciate more whenever you revisit Ramis’ classic. All too fittingly, Groundhog Dog gets better every time you watch it.
Groundhog Day is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of a £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription – with a 7-day free trial.