Originally published in the Chicago Tribune Feb. 12, 1993
The art of the movies is sometimes a matter of personal expression, sometimes a matter of matching the perfect vehicle to a particular star.
The latter is the case with "Groundhog Day," a film that has been expertly tailored by director and co-writer Harold Ramis to the talents of his longtime associate Bill Murray.
After collaborating with Murray variously as writer, director and/or co-star on "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and "Caddyshack," Ramis clearly understands the comic personality he is dealing with, a personality that has developed over the last decade into one of American comedy's richest and most involving.
Murray has captured something that the other baby-boom comics have not — an edge of anxiety beneath the self-satisfaction, of the disappointment and discontent that accompanies a success achieved too easily.
If Murray inhabits his place in the world with an infectious ease and self-confidence — he's the ultimate ringleader, who always knows how to have a good time — he's also aware of how lucky he's been in arriving there, of how an accident of birth has placed him on an economic gravy train unknown to any other generation of Americans before or since.
When Murray has tried to deal with these feelings on his own, the results — his lengthy, dour 1984 remake of "The Razor's Edge" — have seemed too explicit and too severe. In "Groundhog Day," Ramis maintains the balance of Murray's personality: the angst is there but so is the sense of fun.
The plot, which comes from a story by co-writer Danny Rubin, is an ingenious blend of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" — a moral tale laced with existential dread.
Murray is Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburgh weatherman who has been sent, with his producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), to cover the ultimate cliche of his beat — the annual Feb. 2 Groundhog Day ceremonies in Punxsutawney, Pa. (played here by Woodstock, Ill.).
Bored and offensively brusque, Phil rattles his way through his report and, when a snowstorm prevents the crew from driving back to Pittsburgh, hits the sack early in a local bed and breakfast.
But when the alarm goes off the next morning, Phil awakes to another Feb. 2 — an exact rerun of the day before, with only his own sense of deja vu to make it different.
Phil's bemusement — attacked again by the bore (Stephen Tobolowsky) who remembers him from high school, Phil is able to calculate a more effective response — turns gradually to shock and horror as he finds himself suffering the same process again and again. Every time he wakes up it's still Feb. 2; nothing ever changes but Phil's perception of his plight.
The most plangent moment of "Groundhog Day" comes when Phil, now monumentally depressed, asks a pair of newly acquired, blue-collar drinking buddies whether they ever feel "like every day's exactly the same, that there's no escape, and that nothing you do makes any difference" — and the two men only nod their heads in assent over what, in their world, is a commonplace sentiment.
But Phil, as a good Emersonian American, eventually realizes that emptiness also means freedom; embarking on a fierce program of self-improvement that includes learning French, ice-sculpting and jazz piano, he becomes determined to live the best Feb. 2 he possibly can — a definition that includes winning the love of the producer he once treated with condescension and contempt. One of these days, he'll get his one day right.
In their script, Rubin and Ramis provide a solid structure for Phil's emotional progress, following — as Ramis told The Tribune's Richard Christiansen — the steps of the mourning process as defined by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. (One small flaw is a third act that repeats, a bit too closely, the action of the second, as Murray struggles to reconquer MacDowell's alienated affections).
But Rubin and Ramis have also left enough slack in the screenplay to grant their star his full improvisational range, allowing Murray to react spontaneously to his surroundings and fellow players. It's something Murray benefits from almost uniquely among contemporary performers; few comics of his generation have his ability to admit others into his world, to create a sense of co-conspiracy and community.
The best proof of that is the performance of MacDowell, who seems far livelier here than she has in any film since "sex, lies and videotape." For reasons that can't quite be pinpointed, she suggests the Donna Reed of "It's a Wonderful Life," projecting a small-town warmth and wholesomeness that miraculously avoids cliche.
Like his star, Ramis leaves himself open to every opportunity the shooting offers up; the movie feels loose and effortless, with none of the oppressively storyboarded feeling that hangs over most of today's effects-oriented comedies. Pleasure clearly went into the making of this movie; a lot of pleasure comes out of it. It could be a classic.