It's hard for us to imagine the mood on a movie set — the majesty and spectacle of it all even though it's just another day job, arguments about who didn't refill the coffee urn alongside art being made. Do the people working on a film ever think they're making a classic when they're making a classic? Or is it just another job? I wondered about this watching Groundhog Day once again. I was, as ever, completely enjoying and appreciating the 1993 Harold Ramis comedy starring Bill Murray as an arrogant, disgruntled weatherman whose Feb. 2nd assignment to cover the emergence of the groundhog in Puxatawney, Pennsylvania results in him living the same Feb. 2nd again … and again … and again. And thinking about how rare it is to have a great comedy that's also this good.
We all know Groundhog Day is a classic, to be sure, but it's important to note that at the time, Murray hadn't yet entered the second phase of his career; he was coming off a string of tepidly-received comedies like What About Bob? and Quick Change, low-budget and low-ambition films. Ramis' last film was the crowded, unfunny Club Paradise seven years before — everyone involved had something to prove. It's also important to note that like many classics, the golden glow that emanates from Groundhog Day as it stands in the hall of fame can potentially actually obscure how good it really is — how perfectly constructed, how wonderfully made, how extraordinarily matched to Murray's persona as a performer.
The plot's clean and clear and yet allows for infinite possibilities — stranded in Puxatawney after covering the annual Groundhog Day festivities, weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) goes to bed, itching to leave … and wakes up the morning of Feb. 2nd. Time's standing still, or repeating, and only Phil's aware of it. At first, he's manic, infuriated, driven to distraction; then he's manipulative, clever, willing to take advantage of his situation; then he's depressed, doomed, disconnected; and then, he takes advantage of the opportunity he's been given — to do good, to be a better person, to make peace with the fact that life, for him, is not going on — just as we have to make peace with the fact that it does.
I had the pleasure of seeing Ramis introduce and speak after a screening of Groundhog Day in the late '90s, and he talked about the film's unexpected success — and also about how carefully he resisted the studio's desire for explanations — they wanted something added to the script to tell us why Phil was trapped in the now, whether aliens or a spell or a gas cloud or something similar; Ramis wisely resisted, and the film's better for it. Turning Phil's plight into a specific what would make us think about the possibility of a how it could be reversed or 'fixed' and we'd be distracted by that line of thought; instead we, like Phil, have to sit back and accept what's happening.
Murray's the best possible company for that journey, too — it's rare to watch someone change in a film, or change in small ways over a great deal of time, but Murray pulls it off, here. (At risk of being kicked out of the film reviewer fraternity, I'll even go so far as to say that Murray's work here is better-acted — and more moving — than Brad Pitt's Oscar-nominated work in the similarly-structured The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. …) Better yet, he's funny — fearless, perfectly pitched in every scene, earning our respect and regard as he goes through the same day over and over and over. And his scenes with his producer (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman (Chris Elliott) are superbly acted, with Murray bouncing off his co-stars for laughs but also connecting with them for real emotion even in the fantastic time-loops of the story.
The 15th Anniversary Edition DVD is loaded with great extras — the "Weight of Time" documentary actually has screenwriter Danny Rubin share his original, darker vision of the script, and it's the kind of glimpse inside the moviemaking process we don't normally get from a DVD extra. There's also commentary from director Ramis, and while you're slightly distracted by how familiar his voice is — he is, after all, Dr. Egon Spengler of the Ghostbusters — you also come to appreciate how he's willing to sit back, not talk, and let the movie speak for itself. Not every classic is worth revisiting, but Groundhog Day is, and considering the movie's message — that in some cases doing things over and over again can, in fact, lead to change — it's the perfect example of the rare film that gets more meaningful each time we return to it.