Well folks, I regret to inform you that after taking a week to talk about a critically beloved and universally acclaimed film, I am back on my bullshit and pulling off a potentially indefensible swerve. But, I do want you to know that this was not an easy decision. 1993 proved to be one of the most difficult years I’ve ever had to cover for Cinematic Century, because it contained three of my favorite films of the 1990’s. And, not only that, but three films that are so massively important to the formation of my tastes in film and storytelling, the exact type of movies that I love to highlight here. And, when I had to put Jurassic Park, Groundhog Day, and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm up to each other, it led to a pretty impossible decision, and a great time revisiting some truly wonderful movies. And, even beyond those three films, 1993 was a very solid year. Steven Spielberg had one of the most impressive years that a film-maker could possibly have with the one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, spanning the gamut of tone and style to deliver two virtually perfect films, one of which is one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of all time, and the other is a profoundly moving work of art. We also could have gotten down-right Hot Topic by discussing the incredibly artistry of Henry Sellick’s the Nightmare Before Christmas, which is somehow able to remain a great experience in spite of its fanbase. Or, we could have talked about Richard Linklater’s stoner masterpiece Dazed and Confused, which I think is able to tackle the worn out genre of “last day of highschool” better than almost any other movie. We also could have gone back to the Western with the better of the two Wyatt Earp movies, the imminently quotable Tombstone. But, the real challenge came from Jurassic Park and Mask of the Phantasm. Jurassic Park is a movie that came out at the exact perfect time in my life, a movie full of dinosaurs right when I was a peak “little boy obsessed with dinosaurs” age, and it forever changed my interest in movies, while delivering some wonderful nightmare fuel. And, I still maintain that Mask of the Phantasm is handily the best Batman movie ever made, perfectly distilling everything that I personally love about the character in one of the most thrilling animated features ever made. But, weirdly enough, when it came time to decide which of these movies to tackle, I couldn’t deny my true, unyielding love for a weird little romantic comedy about the horror of time.
Groundhog Day began life as the creation of screenwriter Danny Rubin who was told after making a large sale on a script that he needed a new project with an easy to understand hook to get people interested in him. So, he worked up the basic pitch of the film while pondering what it would be like to be immortal, wondering if a person in that position would actually grow and change or become stagnant. And, after tinkering with that concept for a while the script began to grow into what we know the film to be, and was eventually put in the hands of Harold Ramis. Ramis really enjoyed the concept of the script, and began fighting for the film, deciding to do something a little different from the broad comedies that he’d directed previously. He and Rubin fought with the studios who seemed deadset on making the movie more middle of the road, including explanations for everything, including a vengeful magic-practicing ex-girlfriend being behind the time-loop. But, eventually they were able to compromise into the film we all know, giving up the ability to have the film be a little more strange, opening up in media res and just pushing the audience into the deep end. But, with their script they were able to convince Ramis’ longtime collaborator and friend Bill Murray to join the fray, and production began…in Illinois. The movie wasn’t actually filmed in Punxsutawney at all, which is frankly a little disappointing to learn. And, all of that came together to create a film that people generally liked when it came out. It didn’t set the world on fire, and certainly didn’t stand up to a box office juggernaut like Jurassic Park, but it was received well enough. But, perfectly, as time went on and people had time to watch and rewatch the film, its stature began to grow, until it’s now reached the point of becoming one of the more beloved American comedies of recent memory, and a movie that I love absolutely.
Groundhog Day tells that story of a jaded and sarcastic weatherman named Phil Connors. Phil works at a Pittsburgh television network, but has dreams of getting brought up to the big leagues, feeling that his talents are being wasted on the dumb tasks that his network has him do. Such as going every year to the small town of Punxsutawney, home of the infamous groundhog who decides how much longer winter shall be. Phil is sent to Punxsutawney along with cameraman Larry and new producer Rita, ready to get through this farce as quickly as he can. Phil acts like a prima donna, complaining the whole time and demanding to be treated like a celebrity, and generally being insufferable to Larry, Rita, and the people of Punxsutawney. But, after quickly getting through the Groundhog ceremony he plans on returning to Pittsburgh as fast as possible, only to find that a blizzard has rolled into town, trapping them in Punxsutawney for the night. So, Phil heads to his bed and breakfast, and sullenly falls asleep, eagerly awaiting the chance to leave Punxsutawney for another year.
But, that process doesn’t work as smoothly as Phil was hoping. Because the next morning when he wakes up he finds that something unexplainable has happened. He didn’t progress a day, and it’s Groundhog Day once again. He still has all of his memories, but he appears to be reliving the same day again. Phil reacts rather confusedly to this, drifting through the day once again, assuming that he’s experiencing some sort of deja vu. But, when he awakens the next morning he finds himself once more on Groundhog Day, confirming that he appears to be trapped reliving the same day over and over again. And, with this knowledge Phil starts testing the limits of this strange occurrence, learning that he’s functionally immortal, because everything that happens to him just gets reset when he wakes up, giving him permission to live whatever kind of life he wants. Which, leads to a lot of debauchery, drinking, recklessness, and one-night stands. Eventually though, all of that starts to bore Phil. He becomes tired of his new reality and falls into a depression where he just starts killing himself over and over again, hoping to find a way out of this dreaded time loop once and for all. But, no matter what Phil does to himself, he finds himself still trapped in Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day.
And, in the depths of this depression, Phil decides to do something different, and begins spending more time with Rita, slowly starting to get to know here over the course of his loops, and realizing that he cares for her quite a bit. And, through those interactions he decides that he’s wasting this strange gift on himself, and begins using his loops to learn all about the people of Punxsutawney, helping as many people as he can, while learning that there are some extents to his powers, and he’s not able to save everyone. And, after virtually becoming an all-knowing superhero of Punxsutawney, Phil decides to have Rita fall in love with him, hoping that this will free himself from the loop. He starts using trial and error to forge a perfect day with Rita, but just seems to keep coming up short, unable to get her to fall in love with him after one single day. So, one day he decides to just stop trying, and just lives the best day he can. He’s kind to everyone, he helps as many people as possible, and he ends up accidentally bringing Rita closer to him. Which is when Phil realizes that for the first time in any of these loops, he’s actually happy. He’s content with himself and his actions, and goes to bed that night fully expecting to be brought back to the same day. But, when he wakes up he finds himself finally free of this curse, and has progressed a day. So, with a new zeal and understanding of life, Phil leaves Punxsutawney a better man than he entered.
There’s just something incredibly charming about this film that has kept a special place in my heart ever since I first saw it as a child. It’s a very early 1990’s film, with some incredibly dated musical choices, other than the truly wonderful use of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” but other than that it’s an incredibly timeless film that really works to its strength. It’s a practically mythological movie, the sort of movie that can be watched over and over again, finding something different in each time. Which, is kind of a work of genius. I don’t know if Danny Rudin planned to make a movie that would just get better every time you watch it, thus reliving the same experience over and over again, but it has wonderfully worked out that way. All while being incredibly watchable, remaining a truly hilarious comedy while also becoming a really deep meditation on morality. Not to mention, a fascinating little tale. This wasn’t the first story that dealt with time-loops, but it’s certainly the most famous. It has basically become its own genre, with anyone instantly able to understand a type of story by saying it’s like Groundhog Day. And, as a kid, this premise absolute blew me away, helping destroy the notion that a story has to be told in a specific manner, and that it can’t be whatever you want it to be. Bill Murray has led a fascinating career, and there are some performances of his after this film that really started to cement the idea that Murray is more than just an incredibly gifted comedic performer, but I really think that this was the movie that made me realize the potential that he had as an actor, successfully turning in a hilarious performance while also teasing the incredibly dark and powerful ramifications that this film contains.
This film started out with a deceptively simple question. Would an immortal continue to grow as a person. Under all of the other elements of this film, that’s still the central question posed by Groundhog Day. At some point Phil announces that he’s a god, and it’s kind of hard to refute that. Nothing he can do is able to harm him, and he has the ability to literally do whatever he wants with his life, because there are no ramifications. Phil finds himself in the situation where literally everything he does with his day can simply be erased, meaning that he’s able to fully give himself over to his id, and do whatever he wants. And, it doesn’t end up well. Phil pretty quickly realizes that a life of pure debauchery and self-centered gratification isn’t really all its cracked up to be. He finds that even in this situation, the more satisfying path is one where he just tries to be a good person. Phil Connors is able to live whatever type of life he wants, and inevitably just leans into helping people out. He becomes omniscient and uses that, after a detour into personal satisfaction, to aid the people around him. When given the choice between any sort of morality, he inevitably ends up just becoming a good dude. And, I really appreciate that. Morality so often gets tied to religion, which is something that has never meant anything to me. But, this film does show that anyone is capable of being a good person, and doing the right thing, in any situation. We all have that ability, we just have to act on it, and I really love that.
Groundhog Day was written by Danny Rudin and Harold Ramis, directed by Harold Ramis, and released by Columbia Pictures, 1993.
Categories: Cinematic Century