“Groundhog Day” (citywide) may not be the funniest collaboration between Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis, and it doesn’t have a chance of being the most financially successful. Yet this gentle, small-scale effort is easily the most endearing film of both men’s careers, a sweet and amusing surprise package.
Though endearing is not an adjective often associated with the deadpan, abrasive, almost misanthropic style of humor Murray is known for, it is his comic hostility that makes “Groundhog Day” as agreeable as it is. Taking the bitter with the sweet is more than a venerable cliche, but it is also a recipe for making sentimentality palatable on screen.
Much of the credit for this charm ought to go to first-time screenwriter Danny Rubin, who came up with the original idea (and shares script credit with Ramis). There is a romantic innocence about his concept that survives the overreliance on Hollywood shtick that weighs down the film’s first part and makes us believers by the close.
Murray stars as Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh TV weatherman who is so self-involved he’s convinced he doesn’t just report the weather, he creates it. Jaded and cynical, Connors hates nothing more than having to journey to rural Punxsutawney once a year and participate in the unsophisticated shenanigans centering on whether a certain groundhog does or does not see his shadow.
But on this particular Feb. 2, some things turn out to be different for Phil. For openers, he has a new producer, the cheerful, good-natured Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell). For another, Phil discovers that, much as he dislikes it, Feb. 2 is a day he just can’t escape. Ever.
Upon awakening in Punxsutawney on what should be Feb. 3, Phil gradually realizes that everything about this day, from the clock radio playing “I Got You Babe” at precisely 6 a.m. to the chitchat of total strangers, is exactly the same as it was on Feb. 2. But while everyone else is living this day for the first time, Phil is not only repeating it, he seems destined to repeat it again and again and again until the end of time.
What would you do if there were truly no tomorrow, if you knew everything that was going to happen on a given day and nothing you did ever had even a hint of consequences? As he comes to understand if not accept his situation (which, like all fairy tales, is offered blessedly free of explanation), Murray’s Phil quickly disposes of the obvious choices. He pigs out on pastries, drives with abandon, seduces women and flouts the law. Does any of this make him happy? No, it does not.
Then, almost in desperation, Phil remembers Rita, and decides, for want of something better to do, to use the knowledge he can accumulate about her as he keeps reliving Groundhog Day to seduce her. It is a clever conceit, and one that has life-changing consequences that even Phil can’t begin to imagine.
A lot of things can go wrong when repetition is the essence of a film, not the least of which is that seeing the same situation over and over sounds like a considerable bore. And, in the opening stages of the PG-rated “Day,” when moments like stepping into a puddle of ice water are given more than their due, it looks as if Murray and company won’t be able to escape that trap.
But Rubin’s story has more warmth than you might anticipate, as well as its own kind of resilience, and having the gruff Murray (rather than some more fuzzy and cuddly actor) endure a change of heart makes the softer emotions easier to accept. With MacDowell as the pleasant foil, Murray turns “Groundhog Day” into a funny little valentine of a film. It won’t overwhelm you or change your life, but after all the more obvious laughter is over, it may just make you smile.
Bill Murray: Phil
Andie MacDowell: Rita
Chris Elliott: Larry
Stephen Tobolowsky: Ned
A Trevor Albert production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Harold Ramis. Producers Trevor Albert and Harold Ramis. Executive producer C.O. Erickson. Screenplay Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, story by Danny Rubin. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editor Pembroke J. Herring. Costumes Jennifer Butler. Music George Fenton. Production design David Nichols. Art director Peter Lansdown Smith. Set decorator Lisa Fischer. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.