Friday 5 August 2011

Movie Review: Groundhog Day (1993)

An updated but nevertheless old-fashioned morality tale, Groundhog Day strikes a balance between attractively quiet charm and bright lessons in life. It also features some of Bill Murray's best work, a career landmark as he transitioned from mindless comedy to serious acting.

Pittsburgh television weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) does not hide the fact that he is cynical, egocentric and utterly self-centred: there is not much in life that makes Phil happy. His mood is not served when the station sends him for the fourth year in a row to the small town of Punxsutawney in February, to cover the Groudhog Day festivities, when the remaining duration of winter is predicted by a giant groundhog. Phil deems the whole event to be trivial and well beneath him, and is rude and less than sociable towards his travelling companions, producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and camerman Larry (Chris Elliott).

Phil gets through the day as quickly as possible, films his segment, and heads home, but a blizzard prevents him from getting back to Pittsburgh. He wakes up the next morning and it is the start of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney all over again: the events of the previous day will re-live themselves. Phil is caught in a loop, doomed to repeat Groundhog Day over and over.

After getting over the shock, Phil takes advantage of his situation. He uses the information that he learns from each walk-through to charm and sleep with Nancy, an attractive local woman, and then tries the same tactic with Rita. After days of mechanically memorizing her likes and dislikes and using them to his advantage, Phil thinks he is close to seducing her but she rebuffs him. Increasingly depressed and unable to find a way out of the endless repeating cycle, Phil attempts to kill himself in all possible ways, but no matter what gory ending he plans for himself, he always wakes up the next morning at the start of the same Groundhog Day. With not even death offering a way out, Phil has to delve deep into his approach to life and his interaction with others to try and find the right path out of Punxsutawney.

Groundhog Day is structured like a maze,with all paths but one looping back to 6am on the morning of the same day. Phil's challenge is first to know that he is in this maze, and then to find the only way out. Bill Murray has rarely been better, the personality of Phil perfectly fitting his grown-up screen persona of a man who has seen everything, has a snide comment for everyone, and is dismissive of the value of all things. Equally engaging is Andy MacDowell, who quickly gives Rita a combination of depth and smarts. She is first the victim of Phil's insensitivity, then the target of his childish lechery, and finally the path to his salvation, and MacDowell makes Rita believable in all three roles without compromising the fundamentals of the character.

The message behind the movie is both straightforward and textured, and includes lessons about the futility of life's apparent short-cuts and the grim cul-de-sac of dark mentalities. Ultimately, Phil only starts to make progress when he pays attention to the needs of the people surrounding him and to his own need to grow as a person. Lack of self-improvement, at any age, is condemnation to life at a stand-still.

Whether a metaphor for a mid-life crisis or a call to greater societal re-engagement with more human sensitivity, Groundhog Day delivers the good news. It's a day worth living, and a movie to be treasured.

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