Thursday, 11 July 2019

Review: Groundhog Day

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

I'm well up for re-watching favourite movies on a big screen, a feature that used to be a regular thing at my local, but which gradually dropped out of favour with the advent of online streaming subscriptions offering extensive back catalogues, and the price of older DVDs slumping to around the price of a coffee. So even though the timing is a little odd*1, it occurred to me looking at the listing for Groundhog Day that I hadn't watched that at all since the Summer of 1999, even though I absolutely love it. So with that, off I went…


For anyone unfamiliar with the setup, Harold Ramis's film follows curmudgeonly, cynical TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray), as be begrudgingly makes his way across Pennsylvania to the small town of Punxsutawney, where the locals mark a quaint tradition every February 2nd of gathering to speak with a groundhog, 'Punxsutawney Phil'. The creature then predicts if Winter will continue for another six weeks or whether there'll be an early Spring, then everyone celebrates for the rest of the day regardless. Connors records the early-morning segment with his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and producer Rita (Andie MacDowell). But an unforeseen blizzard closes all roads out of the town, takes down long-distance telephone lines and grounds nearby flights. The trio are stranded in Punxsutawney, causing them to stay an extra night.

When Phil awakes the following morning, he's shocked to find that it's Groundhog Day again. He hasn't slept for a year, it's literally yesterday happening all over again. Unsettled, he leaves his hotel to film the weather feature once more, as yesterday replays identically around him, including the snowfall. When Phil awakes for the third time on February 2nd, he realises he's become trapped in the same day. What will he do with this cycle? What should he do with it? Well, there's plenty of time for Phil to figure that out...


So I found myself effectively watching Groundhog Day with new eyes, on account of not having seen it for so long. A good thing. My first reactions were that it would make a solid companion piece with Yesterday, which happened to be playing in the screen right next door. Both stories feature a leading character who's worn down by their lack of success, feeling that they could be receiving more recognition but not knowing how to advance their career. In both movies a supernatural event occurs, and the protagonists find themselves isolated in surroundings which only they fully understand. In both films there's a female companion who doesn't believe the problem, who seems to be placed in the story as 'the love interest', but who is actually there to help the central figure better himself overall.

But after a short while, it becomes clear that this actually has more in common with Scrooged from 1988, not least because of the Bill Murray connection. A Christmas Carol is a redemption story in a similarly snowbound setting, in which an uncertain figure is challenged to save himself with lessons that underscore his past (ie current) form. But Groundhog Day goes even further than that. The Dickens story sees Scrooge learning to spread goodwill and love during his remaining time on earth, returning to London after his spiritual adventure a wiser man. Groundhog Day happens further down the line than this.


I'm amazed I never noticed it before, it's so glaringly obvious yet surprisingly straightforward. 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 patrol cop is Saint Peter at the gates telling him that he has to stick around, that he's not finished yet. Phil isn't yet good enough for Heaven, even though he's not bad enough to be sent to Hell. The snow which confines Phil to the town is akin to the walls of the house in Beetlejuice, the desert sands of Sole Survivor, the fog surrounding the mansion in The Others. Punxsutawney is purgatory and Phil has to work off his sins before he can ascend to a permanent afterlife.

Even within the structure of the story, it's not actually the groundhog who predicts another six weeks of winter. That's a theatrical flourish put on by the custodians of this purgatory, the town elders. Phil is literally told what's going to happen at the very start of this (even if he ends up being there for far more than six weeks). 'You've shown us who you are, now winter is going to continue'.


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

That the film chooses this day as its setting is no accident. Phil is presented, as was Jesus. Phil is eventually cleansed, as was Mary. And given the quantity of his suicide attempts and eventual omnipresence in the town, he's arguably the Holy Spirit, too. During a confessional scene with Rita in the cafe, Phil stops short of calling himself 'the' God. You have to draw the line somewhere with an American audience, I suppose.


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

Phil abuses the system at first of course, getting drunk, picking up women, even robbing a bank. Why wouldn't he? He knows there'll be no long-lasting punishment so he may as well enjoy his apparent immortality. But he quickly realises that even this behaviour isn't making him happy. This is Phil's first real step.


But crucially, Connors isn't downright evil at the start of the film, he's just worn out by life and deeply facetious. Phil is us, in 2019 more than ever. Groundhog Day doesn't go full fire-and-brimstone on its subject, it just lets him discover the virtue of kindness in his own time. This is a homily for the entire audience, not just whoever we mark out as the worst among us (ie anyone else).

It's not until Phil begins truly using his time for good that his path becomes clear. He begins to atone for his misanthropy with an array of daily chores, running around town and preventing bad things from happening like a Sisyphean guardian angel with a checklist. But by the time Phil finally breaks the spell, he's learned that being a better person simply means being good for the sake of it. That's something he's seen in Rita, who is his metaphorical and literal salvation.


This new zeal starts with Phil pursuing the arts (which takes a fantastic amount of time to dawn on him, given he already works in the media). He learns the piano, reads philosophy and poetry, sculpts an angel from a block of ice (in another reference to Heaven and purgatory). Phil brings comfort to the unsure, the infirm and the helpless. He learns that while death is unavoidable (for others at least), life is to be nurtured and cherished all the while that's possible.

Towards the end of his time in limbo, Phil confesses to Rita that she looks like an angel when she's standing in the snow. He's already carved an image of her from the compacted snow (not the solid ice of the previous angel - this sculpture is a nod to the classical marble statues in churches). Phil knows that whatever happens at 6am - no matter what day it is outside - that sculpture won't last. Unable to change events around him for longer than a day, he sees the beauty of fleeting impermanence. Phil knows, on a subconscious level at least, that the woman he met for the first time only the day before is the angel sent to guide him to his redemption.


Before we finish, I should say that I think Harold Ramis missed an opportunity by not having the hotel bartender be the only other person in town who knows what Phil is going through, a bit like Nelson in Life On Mars. The bartender's reaction-shots to the snatches of conversation he overhears seem to suggest that could have been the intention in earlier drafts of the script. Then again, maybe that would give the game away too early.

And so, with satisfyingly quiet victory, Phil finally succeeds and it's February 3rd. The time-glitch isn't explained, even though it has been resolved*2. Phil and Rita step outside of the guest house, but we don't see them leave Punxsutawney. Instead we take one last look at the pristine white surroundings of the town before panning back to the clouds. This is now heaven. Phil has earned his wings and his way out of purgatory. Phil wants to stay here, and he wants Rita to stay with him. Rita doesn't argue. Why would she? She's back home anyway.

You want to see a classic movie from a new perspective?
Try waiting two decades before you watch it again*3

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Dark City, Life On Mars, Scrooged.
Or I suppose you could just watch it as a fluffy Bill Murray comedy, too

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Absolutely, it's worth seeing twice.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Yes, although you should already have this.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Only you can decide on that, you know my feelings.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

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 Jon 'Rio Durant' Favreau.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Really though, why is this on at the cinema? I mean I know it's quite the year for nostalgia-screenings. The Matrix celebrates its 20th birthday by returning to cinemas this weekend, and Tim Burton's Batman hits 30 in 2019. But Groundhog Day? That was first released in 1993, so it's hardly a 'round number' anniversary at 26. And bear in mind that the titular day in the movie is February 2nd, and it 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, either.

It appears to be that the only reason for the screening is to tie-in with Cineworld's latest promo-reel, in which our hero gets an Unlimited Card subscription to break out of his monotonous daily routine. 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, reading poetry) is translated as endless stream of eatery discounts and cinematic entertainment. But this doesn't really work, does it? If Cineworld Phil really was trapped in the same day, why would he need an Unlimited card? He could just watch different movies each time he woke up using the same money. Then again, Phil would run out of movies to watch in under a week because there'd be no scheduling-update. And that's the polar-opposite of what this advert is trying to sell.

It's also worth noting that this special screening was a double-feature. Groundhog Day immediately followed by Groundhog Day. This is the joke. Do you see? You've just watched a film about repetition, and now it's on... again! Given that the date of the screening is not on February 2nd, why? And why do only two of them? Three would be a stronger selling-point, two just seems like the idea has been neutered to a bare minimum by a committee. You want to organise a fun Groundhog Day-themed promo? Show the movie all damned day on a single-ticket. Begin the first screening at 6am as an nod to the alarm clock in the movie, then run back-to-back screenings until closing time around 11pm. Maybe even offer prizes for any punters crazy enough to sit through the whole thing.

In 2018 (and ON Groundhog Day, most importantly), my good pal Brooker raised money for the Alzheimer's Society by watching the movie on repeat for the entire day. That's how the joke works, Cineworld.

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

As the above should show, I got something new out of it, at least... [ BACK ]

*2 Yes Richard Curtis, I'm looking at you. Mind you, I suspect that if Curtis made this film, his love story would run on rails and he'd still find a way to get the methodology of the repeating day wrong, somehow. 'Gobblers Knob' would still be in there, though, providing it was spoken in the script at regular intervals by either Rowan Atkinson or Miriam Margolyes. [ BACK ]

*3 This might all have been covered elsewhere and with far more detail, knowledge and skill that I can throw at it. I haven't checked yet, to be honest. 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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