Just a few short days ago in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the world’s most celebrated rodent emerged from his burrow to enlighten the waiting crowd on the upcoming weather forecast. As tradition dictates, if the creature is greeted by sunlight and sees his own shadow, he will return to his home, resulting in six more weeks of winter. If cloud cover renders the animal unable to discern his own shading, he will venture out into the world, signifying the impending end of cold conditions. In 2011, the underground resident brought tidings of an early spring, much to the joy of the celebratory townsfolk.
More than just simple superstition or regional folklore, the Groundhog Day ceremony has become ensconced in popular culture. In addition to Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania, fellow U.S. creatures Buckeye Chuck of Ohio, General Beauregard Lee of Georgia and Staten Island Chuck of New York, as well as their Canadian cousins Wiarton Willie of Ontario and Shubenacadie Sam of Nova Scotia, share their weather prognostication services with their respective communities. Of course, Phil remains the high profile hero of the bunch, garnering significant international television coverage. His movements also provide context for Harold Ramis’ 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, one of the most enduring and engaging modern mainstream examples of the genre.
As February 2nd approaches, Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) reluctantly journeys to Punxsutawney to compile his annual reportage of the event. With news producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) in tow, he goes through the motions of capturing the celebrations, making his general disdain for the town and its tradition well known. From insulting the locals to angering his colleagues, the self-centred and sardonic television personality is rude and unresponsive, biding his time until his return to the city. When the groundhog’s prediction of a prolonged winter eventuates in a blistering blizzard, Phil finds himself trapped in his own personal small town hell.
Alas, his forced residence in Punxsutawney is the least of Phil’s problems, with worse in store as he awakens to a new day. Or the same day, in fact, as the duplication of daily occurrences quickly demonstrates that something more significant than a severe case of déjà vu is underway. From a repeat of the morning radio show to a rehash of breakfast chit chat, falling in the same icy puddle to reliving an encounter with school friend Ned (Stephen Tobolowsky), and reproducing his groundhog coverage to reiterating his wish to leave the area, Phil steps through an exact replica of events he experienced only the day prior. Subsequent days each unfold as a rerun of February 2nd, despite Phil’s best – and worst – efforts to break the cycle.
As each twenty-four hour period comes and goes, the audience bears witness to a wide variety of antics at the hands of Phil, including sinister and suicidal, desperate and devious, crafty and clever, and finally sweet and selfless acts. At the centre of his unusual predicament is the kind and charming Rita, a gentle soul open to new experiences and overwhelmed with affection for the quaint community. As she warms to Phil in each repeated day, her encouragement drives him to become a better person. Although a detour through the dark and lonely recesses of his mind displays the hedonistic side of his nature, the guiding force of Rita’s positive influence represents the light at the end of the amusingly repetitive tunnel.
A rare film that not only entertains but enriches as well, Groundhog Day is a comedy masterpiece with broad appeal. As well as crafting an accessible and humorous story of self-awareness amidst the gimmickry confines of an amiable U.S. holiday, writer / director Ramis and his co-scribe Danny Rubin manage to invest insight and immediacy, as well as pathos and poignancy, into the comical time loop narrative. Ironically, although easily dismissed upon initial release as a pleasant yet insubstantial effort, the underlying genius of the feature only makes itself known after several viewings. Possessing the characteristics of a comfortable yet satisfying sojourn into philosophy, personal responsibility and redemption, it corners the feel-good market whilst retaining an element of intelligence and ingenuity missing in many of its counterparts.
Much of the success of the film stems from Ramis’ known comedic nous – as illustrated by his involvement with many of the bona fide hits of the late 1970s and 1980s as a writer, director, producer and star (including Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters) – as well as Murray’s delightful deadpan manner (as demonstrated in the majority of the aforementioned features, as well as Scrooged and What About Bob?). Re-teaming after several earlier offerings, the duo bring out the best in the other, with Ramis’ subsequent films without Murray (Multiplicity, Bedazzled, Analyse This, Analyse That, and Year One, for example) less assured, and Murray’s on-screen persona evolving in a different direction (courtesy of auteurs Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch) in the void left by Ramis’ absence.
Indeed, presenting the perfect marriage of cynical comedy and sentimental drama – and winning a BAFTA for best original screenplay for its inventive efforts – Groundhog Day is an acting, writing and directing showcase for the pair, with both at the top of their respectfully restrained yet imaginatively irreverent game. The remainder of the cast – particularly the always loveable MacDowell – turn in measured performances, each mining their talents to contribute in a memorable way. That it is hard to believe that eighteen years have passed since the film first thrust the groundhog phenomenon to global attention is indicative of the feature’s lasting legacy, with the effort encapsulating all the favourable attributes of a beloved offering. A classic comedy imbued with requisite levels of quirkiness, consistency, charisma and courage, Groundhog Day is and forever will be a gentle giant of the genre.