By Matt Fleming. This is RETROGRADING, where today is tomorrow.
THE FILM: Groundhog Day
THE TIME: 1993, a surprisingly fruitful year for funny flicks (including gems like Mrs. Doubtfire and Dazed And Confused). Also, comedy icon Bill Murray was amidst one of several career peaks, having just completed What About Bob?, with Ed Wood and Kingpin right around the corner. Of course, Murray was going through some difficult times personally, yet he still managed to pull off one of the all-time-greats with Groundhog Day.
RECOLLECTIONS: Groundhog Day shares two great distinctions: it is nearly universally beloved by audiences, and it was the final collaboration between the gifted duo of Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. The two came together in 1979 for the surprise hit Meatballs, and had since struck comedy gold with films like Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, but by 1993 Murray had acquired a reputation as a pretty difficult guy. His tantrums and refusal to communicate with Ramis could have torpedoed the film, but the director put his faith in Murray’s abilities and the result was a time-looping, timeless classic.
The film began as a much darker story, focusing on the futility of a mundane life. Enter Harold Ramis, who took Danny Rubin’s script and inserted some necessary levity and sweetness. He was also able to cater the Phil Connors’ character to suit the talents of his longtime partner, and Murray signed on despite his personal demons. Once the film wrapped, Murray and Ramis were finished. It would be twenty years before the two would reconcile, but it would be too late to see what these two great minds and former friends could have delivered.
THE DIRECTOR: Harold Ramis was not a flashy director. His career began, and thrived, as a writer, but with Caddyshack he decided to perform double duty. With eleven films behind the camera, Groundhog Day stands as his best. Of course, his aforementioned golf comedy is great and most folks love National Lampoon’s Vacation, but this movie retains serious universal appeal. Ramis had the ability to let the talent do most of the work, keeping camera movement limited, never trying too hard to put a personal stamp on his films visually. He was never known as a great director, but that was never what Ramis needed to be.
The years after Groundhog Day were not the director’s best, to say the least. He followed the 1993 hit with duds like Multiplicity and Stuart Saves His Family, and his only remaining hit was to be Analyze This. In 2002, he made the downright terrible sequel Analyze That, which was met with considerably diminished returns and helped to further tarnish the legacy of at least three Hollywood legends. Once his partnership with Bill Murray went up in flames, it seems like Ramis had lost some fire of his own. Although he may never be forgiven for writing and directing 2000’s remake of Bedazzled, he will always be known as a writer first, director second. With Groundhog Day, he was able to turn in a masterwork, and for that moviegoers remain thankful.
THE CAST: With the role of Phil Connors, Bill Murray delivered one of the most well-rounded performances of his comedic career. Modern audiences continue to flock to his myriad of muted-yet-strange roles in the films of Wes Anderson, and the saucy Peter Venkman will always be the most memorable, but as a jaded weatherman forced to contemplate his way into being a good person, Murray showed true depth. There were certainly moments when Murray’s personal demons began to blur the line between acting and “sick of this shit,” but it was nowhere near the phoned-in hackjob he delivered in Scrooged. Without Bill Murray at the center of this time loop, Groundhog Day would feel as endless as Phil Connors’ existence.
Phil would have never made it through eternity without Andie MacDowell in her signature role as Rita, the woman who teaches him to love others more than his stupid self. Her performance hit some rough patches, but her ability to be sweet and stern in kind was exactly what her character would need to survive an eternity with such a difficult bastard. Chris Elliott toned back his signature goofiness and provided a suitable dolt for Phil to learn to love. Also, if it weren’t for the sprawling supporting cast, the charm of small town minutiae might have became unbearable. (If you look close, you can spot a young Michael Shannon as a newlywed.) Any ensemble willing to be this perky over the course of a million takes is worth applauding.
And what would a Bill Murray comedy be without his older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray?
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Groundhog Day is the nostalgia-fest that keeps on giving. There is simply no other movie based on a C-grade holiday that holds a candle to this annual February favorite. While it might have that “Nineties saccharine” feel softening its harder edges, Groundhog Day bears that aw-shucks charm. It’s a film that stands the test of time after time after time.
RETROGRADE: 8.5 out of 10