This one is a winner in almost all respects, a kind of comic Twilight Zone episode that never quits. Murray has had roles in which he does nothing funny but seems to stand around waiting for laughs anyway, wearing a goofy expectant smile, as in "Stripes." But not here. This is probably his best role. He may still have the goofy expression but this time the laughs arrive on time.
The movie excells at three levels.
One is the overall conception, the comic theme itself. Murray, a sarcastic and sadistic weatherman finds himself stuck in a small dreary town in Pennsylvania with two colleagues, one of them Andie MacDowell, his producer. They cover the local Groundhog Day celebration then find themselves unable to leave because of a blizzard. The next morning Murray wakes up to find that it's the same Groundhog Day all over again. And the next morning too. And so on ad almost infinitum. So far so good. A nice concept but it could go either way, depending on how it's handled. In fact, it's handled very well. What could have been a one-gag movie that ran out of steam after the first quarter hour turns instead into a neatly logical progression of plot and character development. Murray of course is the centerpiece of the tale and it is his changes that occupy our attention; the other roles, although well done, are mostly there to provide reflections on Murray's moral evolution. (Andie MacDowell, wardrobed in slacks, white blouse and checked vest, and done up with long fluffy curly black hair, looks radiantly appealing.)
Murray's reaction discovering that he is now living Day Two is one of a terrible anxiety. He manages to get this across effectively, even though it is tinged with his own brand of distant amusement. On Day Three he is depressed and gets drunk. On Day Four he realizes that tomorrow will have no consequences and tests this hypothesis by breaking all of the rules of traffic. As the days pass, he plans to seduce MacDowell, and he implements his plan cleverly, discovering more and more about her -- her favorite drink, her favorite toast, the kind of man she is looking for. He has so much time on his hands that he learns to play the piano expertly because MacDowell likes men who play instruments. His scheme seems to be working but no matter how perfect his playacting he simply cannot get her into bed in one single day -- and every day he must start over with her from scratch. ("Twelve years of Catholic school speaking," she tells him.) Eventually, however, he comes to realize that he really DOES care for her because, after all, he's gotten to know her quite well with the passage of time, although she doesn't know it. When he undergoes this epiphany he goes about doing good, no longer just acting nice but actually BEING nice, whether it advances his desire to get her in the sack or not. Obliquely, indirectly, it works without his having intended it to. She falls for him and they live happily ever after. That's the overall conception and it's very well handled.
Level Two is the script, the dialogue, and this too is superior. How many movies can throw in a handfull of quotes from Sir Walter Scott and people of that ilk -- one quote is in French -- without making a contemporary audience, used to MTV, squirm? "And winter/ slumbering in the open ground/ wears upon his smiling face/ a dream of spring." And it isn't just stuck into the script; it fits into the scene and is an appropriate comment on the plot. But more than that, the lines are not only intelligent but sometimes very witty. Just a few examples that come to mind.
On Day Two, I believe, Murray is sitting in a bowling alley with two local drunks, bemoaning his fate. He once spent a beautiful day in the Carribean with a gorgeous girl. They drank pina coladas. They watched the sun go down and then they made love like two otters. Why couldn't he be stuck in THAT day instead of this one? "How would you feel," he asks his pals, "if you woke up every morning and it was the same awful day and nothing you ever did made the slightest difference because nothing meant anything?" One of the drunks, glumly replies: "That about sums it up."
On Day Three, Murray and MacDowell are sitting in the Tip Top Cafe and he has a huge tray of fattening food in front of him. He lights a cigarette
and stuffs whipped-cream pastries into his mouth. MacDowell: "I hate to see a man of your advanced years destroying himself." Murray: "Maybe they're not advancing as fast as you think."
Last example from dialogue, somewhere down the time line, after he's begun worming his way into her affections: Murray and MacDowell are walking along at night in the snow, her arm through his, and she tells him, "Thank you for a very nice day. It's the kind of day that could never be planned." Murray: "Well -- it CAN be planned but it takes a lot of work."
The third level at which the movie works is, very simply, the actual small bits of business that the actors involve themselves in. Ramis, the director, plays the doctor who checks out X-rays of Murray's skull to see if there's any pathology. Ramis stares at the photos and says, "No clots, no tumors, no aneurysms -- at least as far as I can see," then he turns around and squints tightly and rapidly three time in a row. (Who thinks up something like that?) And Murray takes a girl to a Clint Eastwood movie and does an expert impression of Eastwood, from the Man With No Name costume to the voice. When he turns his back and speaks, it sounds exactly like Eastwood. There are running gags about things like innocent-looking but bottomless puddles in the gutter. I know that some of these things sound old, but they are so well realized here that we can forget their age. They seem born anew, just like Murray.
There is one danger in a story like this that the movie skirts neatly. The romance between Murray and MacDowell, had more been made of it, could easily have turned cloying. That's what happens to Jack London's characters in "The Sea Wolf." You've got to handle this carefully, because, as we all know, comedy in itself is of no significance. (How many comedies win academy awards?) The movie has to be about something deeper, of course, and the sort of logic that comes to that conclusions must also come to the conclusion that the audience consists of an unwashed horde of semi-moronic dolts who must have the "seriousness" pounded into their heads with a sixteen-pound sledge hammer. The problem is deftly avoided in "Groundhog Day." The romance is funny more often than not. And during the moments when it isn't played for laughs, it advances our understanding of the changes in Murray's character. And MacDowell looks angelic enough that Murray's growing feelings for her are believable. I should also mention the use of appropriate musical numbers on the track. "The Pennsylvania Polka" is used as punctuation throughout. Midway through the movie, we get Ray Charles' "You Don't Know Me," underlining the uncertainty of the romance. By the end we have an even more romantic theme from Rachmaninoff that begins in sincerity and ends in a jolly jazzed-up version.
This is one of the best comedies of the last ten or fifteen years, including "The In Laws" and "The Freshman" and "My Cousin Vinny." Before that, there were "Love at First Bite" and "Murder by Death." Pure comedies, successful ones, come along rarely.
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