Introductions are a tricky thing. As a new film critic around these parts, I'm very aware of the oddery of turning up out of the blue and asking people to read my opinions on such a subjective medium.
With that in mind, I was asked to pick a number of film reviews from my personal site's archive to introduce myself to a broader audience. The choices were tough. I knew I couldn't steam in with some of my more eyebrow-raising viewpoints lest I scare people away with their sexy, maverick, loose-cannon vibe.
On the other hand, I want to separate myself from the plethora of other critics out there. I want to do this right, so for my first pick, I chose Groundhog Day, because it's probably one of those films that most people will have seen at some juncture. As for those who haven't, I thought they'd probably be aware of the concept, which has become cultural shorthand at this point.
Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a TV weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog festival in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Along with new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) he begrudgingly travels to the town, where he finds that once the day is over, it restarts, leaving everyone but Phil completely oblivious to what has happened.
Phil ends up stuck in a time loop, re-living the same day in a place he hates, over and over, with no end in sight. The whole film is a showcase for Bill Murray and he’s more than up for the task. It’s one of his all-time great roles, playing to his strengths but also giving him plenty to work with. He starts off in his comfort zone, in full sardonic mode but soon starts changing into a character you genuinely feel for, rather than just revelling in being a cool jerk. I’ll get back to Andie MacDowell in a minute.
I think Chris Elliot is often overlooked as Larry, but the script gives him some nice moments and he does well with what he’s given. Stephen Tobolowsky also makes several scene-stealing appearances as Ned Ryerson, an insurance salesman who may be the most irritating man in the world.
It’s incredibly frustrating when a film has an awesome concept and doesn’t fully explore it or go anywhere fun with it. Groundhog Day is not one of those films. In fact, it’s the polar opposite. It takes its central conceit and runs with it, giving us a full gamut of interesting takes on what life would be like if lived in a consequence-free world. Crucially, the film never explains why Phil is living the same day repeatedly, which I think is a masterstroke.
As a result, the film is open to all sorts of interpretations. If it were a product of modern studio thinking, there’d be a temptation to over-egg it and weigh it down with needless explanatory baggage to ensure that even the dumbest person in the crowd understood it.
The point is, despite this being a high-profile, decently budgeted big studio comedy back in the day, it shot for something deeper. A popular comedy that went further than yelling inappropriate things and broad-as-anything slapstick. It's getting tougher to remember what they were like.
I think the script is one of the best-written comedies out there. The story is great and the dialogue is sharp and witty. It’s also well structured. The gag rate for the first half is fast and furious, but eventually winds down as Phil finds himself sinking into a detached depression, before picking up again as he focuses on self-improvement.
It’s obviously more fun to watch Murray deadpan a few one-liners, break laws, con his way into a woman’s knickers and stuff cakes into his mouth with reckless abandon, but the slow evolution of the character is well-charted, subtly done and reaps its own laughs.
When sentiment and romance enter the fray they feel completely earned. The film isn’t afraid to explore some of the darker bits of humour either. Phil’s repeated suicides are blackly comic.
The one scene I always remember is him coming down the stairs, dishevelled, picking up a toaster and plodding back upstairs, getting into a bath and dropping it in, without removing the toast, and all in complete silence with a thousand-yard stare. It’s brilliant.
I'm also a big fan of his mania later on, including a memorable stretch where he steals the town's groundhog and lets Punxsutawney Phil steer a speeding truck, instructing him not to “drive angry”.
So, Andie MacDowell. I don’t want to be mean, but she is my only problem with the film. There’s something incredibly flat about her performance as Rita who is integral to the story. She’s why Phil initially sinks into depression and eventually the reason why he works on becoming a better person.
She should be something really special, we need to fall in love with her too. On paper, it’s easy to see why Rita is interesting. Thanks to Phil’s repeated encounters and dates with her, we glean a lot about her life, her aspirations and her personality in general. She’s a fully realised character, but MacDowell just can’t sell it.
There’s an emphasis on how quirky she is, initially to contrast with Phil’s jaded disposition, but it just doesn’t work. Her performance would sink or at least dent a lesser film, but perhaps there’s an unintentional benefit. Rita's emptiness makes her a blank canvass for the audience to project ideal qualities and past loves.
Projecting ourselves onto good-looking avatars is part of the success of countless films ranging from the James Bond franchise to the Twilight series.
Overall Groundhog Day is a pitch-perfect comedy. It does practically everything right. It has a powerhouse performance by Murray, broaches big life questions and has a believable love story, without being preachy or mawkish in its approach to either.
It’s one of those films that I’ll put on if I’ve had a rubbish day and it’s genuinely life-affirming. It gets a full five star rating from me. Never has the phrase “timeless classic” been more appropriate.
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