Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Review: Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day
Cert: PG / 97 mins / Dir. Harold Ramis / Trailer

I'm well up for re-watching classic movies on a big screen, a feature that used to be a regular occurrence at my local, but which gradually dropped out of favour with the advent of older DVDs often costing less than the price of a coffee and online streaming subscriptions offering extensive back-catalogues. So although the timing is somewhat baffling*1, I realised looking at Cineworld's listings page that I somehow hadn't watched Groundhog Day since the Summer of 1999, despite absolutely loving the movie. So with that, off I went…


For the uninitiated, Groundhog Day follows cynical, curmudgeonly, Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) as he reluctantly makes his way to the small town of Punxsutawney PA, where the locals mark a quaint tradition on February 2nd of gathering to speak with a groundhog, 'Punxsutawney Phil'. The creature then predicts whether there will be an early Spring or another six weeks of Winter, and everyone celebrates for the rest of the day regardless. Connors films the early-morning segment with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). But an unforeseen blizzard closes the roads outward, grounds flights and takes down long-distance telephone lines. The trio are stranded in the town, causing them to stay an extra night.

When Phil awakes the next morning, he's astounded to find that it's Groundhog Day again. And not the following year, it's literally yesterday happening all over again. Shaken, he leaves his hotel to record the weather feature once more, as the day plays out in duplicate around him, including the blizzard. When Phil awakes on February 2nd for the third time, he realises he's trapped in this day. What will he do with this apparent loop? What should he do with it? Well, Phil's got plenty of time to figure that out...


So because I haven't seen Groundhog Day for so long, I found myself effectively watching with new eyes. No bad thing. My initial feelings were that this would make a good companion piece to Yesterday, coincidentally playing in the screen next door. Both movies feature a protagonist who's worn down by their lack of success, which is to say that both feel they could be receiving more recognition, but neither really knows how to advance their career. In each case a supernatural event occurs, and our heroes find themselves isolated in a world which only they fully recognise. And in each case there's a disbelieving female companion, initially slated as 'the love interest', but who is actually the means by which the protagonist will better himself overall.

But it becomes apparent this actually has more in common with 1988's Scrooged, and not just because of the Bill Murray connection. A Christmas Carol is also a snowbound redemption story, in which a morally floundering hero is presented with lessons that reflect his past (ie current) self and urge him to be more. Yet Groundhog Day is a step on even from that. Dickens' tale sees its lead learning to spread love and goodwill for his remaining time on Earth, returning a wiser man after his spiritual adventure. Groundhog Day happens further down the line than this.


It's surprisingly straightforward, and so glaringly obvious that I'm amazed I never noticed it before. Phil Connors is dead for most of Groundhog Day. Probably in a traffic accident caused by the blizzard he failed to predict. Phil has died and the traffic cop is Saint Peter at the gates telling him he's not finished yet, that he has to stick around. Phil isn't bad enough to be sent to Hell, but he's also not yet good enough for Heaven. The snow is akin to the fog which surrounds the mansion in The Others, the desert sands of Sole Survivor, the walls of the house in Beetlejuice. Punxsutawney is purgatory and Phil has to work off his sins before he can ascend to a permanent afterlife.

Even within the framework of the story, it's not actually the groundhog who predicts another six weeks of winter. That's a knowing show put on by the town elders, the custodians of purgatory. They literally tell Phil what's going to happen at the very start (although he's there for longer than six weeks). 'You've shown us who you are, now winter is going to continue'.


Religious imagery courses through and around the film, from the recurring angels (we'll get to those) to the position of the cross which Phil adopts when he throws himself from the town's highest building, its church. February 2nd, Groundhog Day, is Candlemas in the Catholic calendar. It represents Jesus first being presented to God, his first entry into the temple and the purification of Mary. And although this festival isn't namechecked in the script, it's traditional in the US to eat crepes (pancakes for those of us in the UK) on that day, alluded by the drunk from the bowling alley who is fixated with getting some flapjacks (again, pancakes, a food traditionally eaten in the UK to mark the beginning of Lent).

It's no accident the film chose this day as its setting. Phil is presented, as was Jesus. Phil is eventually cleansed, as was Mary. And given his eventual omnipresence in the town and the number of his suicide attempts, he's arguably the Holy Ghost, too. In one of Phil's confessional scenes in the cafe with Rita, he stops short of calling himself 'the' God. You have to drawn the line somewhere for an American audience, I suppose.


Even in his day's early iterations, while Connors is still playing with the concept and what he can get out of it, he learns, he adapts, he grows. Even when he reaches the depths of his despair, Phil looks for new ways of whiling away the hours, of blocking out the frustration and eventually of ending it all. Well, until 6am, at least.

At first Phil abuses the system, getting drunk, picking up women, robbing a bank. I mean, why not? He knows there'll be no comeback, may as well try to enjoy his temporal incarceration. But Phil quickly realises that this behaviour isn't making him happy. That's his first real step.


Connors isn't an absolute monster at the beginning of the film, just facetious and worn out by life. He is us, in 2019 more than ever. Groundhog Day doesn't threaten its subject with punishment necessarily, it just patiently extols the virtue of kindness. It's a parable for the whole audience, not just whoever we see as the worst among us (ie someone else).

Phil's path doesn't become truly clear until he starts using his time for good. At first it's a series of daily chores as he tries to atone for his misanthropy by running around town and preventing bad things from happening, almost literally a guardian angel with a checklist. But in the end, when Phil finally breaks the spell, he's learned to be good for the sake of just being a better person. It's a quality he's seen in Rita, who is his salvation in a very real sense.


So eventually Phil begins pursuing the arts (which, for someone who already works in the media, takes a delicious amount of time to arrive). He reads books, he learns the piano, he sculpts an angel from a block of ice (another nod to purgatory/Heaven). Phil helps the helpless, the unsure, the infirm. He learns that death is inevitable, but life is to be cherished and nurtured while that's possible.

Towards the end of his journey, Phil tells the dozing Rita that she looks like an angel when she stands in the snow, and he carves an image of her from compacted snow (not the solid ice he used earlier, this time it's a nod to the marble statues of churches). Phil knows now that whatever happens at 6am, whether it's February 2nd or 3rd, that sculpture won't last. He sees the beauty of fleeting impermanence. He knows, on a subconscious level at least, that Rita is the angel sent to guide him to his redemption. A woman he met for the first time only the day before when she arrived at the TV station to whisk him away.


Incidentally, I think Harold Ramis missed a trick in not having the hotel bartender be the only other person in the town who knows what's happening, a la Life On Mars. His sly looks at overheard snatches of conversation suggest that could have been an idea at one point, although maybe it would have been too obvious a wink at the audience.

And so without fanfare, Phil finally succeeds and the calendar flips over. The chronological anomaly isn't explained, but it is resolved*2. We don't see Phil and Rita leave Punxsutawney. We take a last lingering look at the pristine white surroundings of the town before we pan back to the clouds. This is now heaven. Phil has earned his wings and his way out of purgatory. Phil wants to stay, and wants Rita to stay with him. Rita doesn't argue, she's back home anyway.

You want to see one of your favourite movies in a new light?
Try leaving it two decades*3

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Scrooged, Dark City, Life On Mars.
Or, y'know, if you just like fluffy Bill Murray comedies it can be that as well

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Hell yeah. Twice, if you can.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
You should already have this but yes.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It is.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Don't know, you tell me.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: No direct front-of-camera links, but Bill Murray's in this and he provided voicework for 2016's Jungle Book alongside Lupita 'Maz Kanata' Nyong'o.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Why is this on at the cinema, though? It's already quite the year for nostalgia-screenings, of course. Tim Burton's Batman hits 30 in 2019, and The Matrix celebrates its 20th birthday by returning to cinemas this weekend. But as for Groundhog Day? Well, it was first released in 1993, so 26 is hardly a 'round number' anniversary. And then you've got to figure that the titular day in the movie is February 2nd, and the movie originally came out on 12th of Feb in the US, and 1st of March in the UK. So July doesn't fit with the time of year either in- or out-of-universe.

It seems to be that the only reason is to tie-in with Cineworld's latest promo-reel, in which our hero breaks out of his monotonous daily routine via an Unlimited Card subscription. The repetitive nature of Groundhog Day is parodied by Cineworld Phil's own humdrum life, and the section of the film where Groundhog Day Phil decides to use his time to better himself (by say, learning the piano) is reflected with an endless stream of cinematic entertainment and associated discounts. But that doesn't really work, does it? If Cineworld Phil really was trapped in the same day, he wouldn't need an Unlimited card - he could just use the same money to watch different movies each time he wakes up. Then again, Phil would run out of movies to watch in under a week because there'd be no scheduling-change. And that's literally the opposite of what this advert is trying to convey.

It's also worth noting that this special screening was a double-bill. Groundhog Day immediately followed by Groundhog Day. That's the joke. Do you see? You've just watched a film about repetition, and now it's on... again! Given that the timing of the screening is not on Groundhog Day, why? Why do two of them? Three would be a better attempt, two just seems like the idea has been nerfed by committee. You want to run a fun Groundhog Day-themed promo? Show the movie all damned day on a single-ticket. Start the first screening at 6am as an homage to the alarm clock in the movie, and run back-to-back showings until closing time around 11pm. Offer prizes for any punters insane enough to sit through the whole thing.

Back in 2018 (and ON Groundhog Day, I might add), my good pal Brooker raised money for the Alzheimer's Society by watching the movie on repeat for a whole day. That's how you do the joke, Cineworld.

However, I would like to sincerely thank you for screening it again anyway ;)

As the above will testify, I did get something new out of it... [ BACK ]

*2 Yes, I'm looking at you, Richard Curtis. Although I imagine that if Curtis made this movie, even though the love story would run on rails he'd still find a way to mess up the methodology of the repeating day. 'Gobblers Knob' would remain though, providing it was namechecked in the script at regular intervals by either James Corden or Joanna Lumley. [ BACK ]

*3 All of this theory may have been covered before with far more skill, knowledge and detail than I can apply. I'll be honest, I haven't checked. Look, let me have my moment okay? [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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