Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a self-centered, egotistical weatherman for Pittsburgh’s WPBH-TV9. On the eve of Groundhog Day, Phil, news producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) travel to Punxsutawney to cover the annual festivities of the day. Phil, not liking the assignment or the town, goes through the motions and tries to book it out of the town, but a blizzard shuts down travel, forcing him to stay an extra night.
The next morning, he wakes up to the very same radio morning show routine that was aired the day before. As he heads out for the day, he runs into the same people, conversations and events that took place on Groundhog Day. Rinse, wash and repeat, that’s when Phil realizes he’s stuck having to relive Groundhog Day over and over again.
“I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over and over?” – Phil Connors
Based on a story concept originally written by Danny Rubin, with Harold Ramis throwing in some rewrites, Groundhog Day may not be Ramis’s best overall film, but from a directing standpoint, it’s the strongest work he’s ever done. We’ve seen the basic premise before: life-altering events like something out of a Twilight Zone episode with the intention of redeeming the pessimistic main character. George Bailey went through it in It’s a Wonderful Life. Before Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge experienced the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future in Charles Dickens’s literary classic A Christmas Carol. Here, we get Phil Connors. Thanks to Rubin and Ramis’s witty writing, the sharp direction provided by Ramis and two charmingly terrific performances from Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, what could’ve been just another ripoff of the aforementioned stories ends up standing on its own merits.
This is a more restrained approach than what we’ve seen from Ramis’s previous directing efforts (Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation). While the film does bounce back and forth from slapstick, witty and dark comedy to drama, Ramis still keeps control of the narrative, never letting it become uneven. In lesser filmmaking hands, this could’ve fallen into sentimental hell or run the risk of annoying viewers with the repeated scenes. Ramis not only avoids annoying viewers, he creates scene after scene that only gets funnier as the story progresses. It takes true talent to play Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” over and over and over again, and make it work.
Of course, Bill Murray is the heart and soul of this film, and even with Harold Ramis at the helm, there’s no denying that this film wouldn’t have been as great without Murray in the lead. No one can play a charming jackass better than him. As Phil Connors, he’s certainly arrogant (he asks a phone operator, “Don’t you keep open a line for emergencies or for celebrities? I’m both!”), but overall he’s cynical and jaded. This was a different type of performance for Murray in that his cockiness wasn’t as flashy or energetic like we’ve seen him do before. He’s just an insufferable ass with a downer attitude. From the moment we meet him, we realize that instantly. In a way, prior to literally going through the same day over and over, he’s already experiencing the same day on repeat, going to the same town for the same festivities on the same holiday every single year.
No wonder he’s sick of Punxsutawney.
Enter Andie MacDowell’s Rita, who’s the turning point for Phil. It’s too bad that MacDowell isn’t as present onscreen today as she was during the ’90s, ’cause she’s an underrated actress and a perfect fit to play opposite Murray. Bringing a natural and graceful presence to Rita, you wonder how she could possibly put up with Phil as much as she does, but that partly defines who her character is. Perhaps she sees something better in Phil that he doesn’t see or just chooses not to accept?
What makes Groundhog Day such a treasure is that there’s more to this film than just the many laughs we get from watching it. Underneath the hilarity, there’s a poignant message that poses the question: what if you could relive each day over and over? As Phil declares, there’s no need to worry about consequences. Would you follow Phil’s lead and use the opportunity to score women (a great scene where he meets a women, cleverly pries information from her and uses it the next day), get rich or lead a police chase on railroad tracks? It’s fun at first for Phil, but then it begins to wear on his nerves, which leads to some highly entertaining suicides (as odd as that sounds). To Phil, his life is now a curse, but as Rita eventually points out to him, “Maybe it’s not a curse; it just depends on how you look at it.” To this day, Groundhog Day’s message is debated amongst scholars – both academic and religious – and even psychologists. It’s rare to find a comedy that has that big of an impact.
It’s a shame that following this film Murray and Ramis had a falling out with each other (it’s unclear if the two reconciled before Ramis’s death). I’ve talked about chemistry between performers, but I feel people underestimate how important the chemistry between a director and actor can be toward benefiting a film. Behind the camera and in front of it, this was Murray and Ramis at the top of their game together. Groundhog Day is certainly funny – even darkly funny at times – but it’s also heartfelt without ever feeling contrived. Sure, Ramis has done films that are funnier, but I can’t think of a film he’s ever made – and the same can be said of Bill Murray’s performance – that’s as deep and meaningful as this one.