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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Groundhog Day

"I'm going to go home and Bud Dwyer myself over and over and over..."

Happy Groundhog Day, filmgoers. Normally, this day wouldn't be complete without a viewing of this film. Much like on Friday the 13th, I do my best to watch Friday the 13th, and how on Christmas, I always watch A Christmas Story, and on Thanksgiving, I watch The Godfather (trilogy), I always wind up watching Groundhog Day, on Groundhog Day. And it proves a theory of mine - a year is long enough to wait and see a movie, and have it be like a brand new movie each time you watch it. The little moments you forget over the course of busy and stressful days, which I'm sure we'd hate to live forever and over and over, and the people you even forget are in it. Which is one of the benefits of being a critic, I think - you get so much knowledge crammed in on a daily basis, that some stuff is bound to escape. What year something came out, a supporting characters name, or who played that one guy who only had two lines and is now a respected Oscar nominee.

Ten bucks if you can point out Michael Shannon to me.

For those of you not familiar with this film, shame on you let's roll down the basics:

Phil (an excellent Bill Murray), is a local weatherman in the good ol' PA. February 2nd rolls around, and for the third year in a row, he has to go let the locals know whether or not Punxsutawny Phil - the groundhog king - sees his shadow, promising six more weeks of winter. On hand, are his producer Rita (an adorable Andie McDowell) and his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot). In the beginning of the film, the personalities are fairly broad - Rita is bright-eyed and bushy tailed, truly wanting to make good news. Larry is the funny, side-kick cameraman, a couple of one-liners here and there. And Phil, well... he's a jerk. A funny guy, and definitely someone you'd spend time with for a drink, if only to hear what he says next, but he's not a nice guy. He's self-centered, and all around loathsome under his 'celebrity' personality.

The crew is stuck in Punx, PA as the result of a blizzard - undersold by Phil in the previous day's forecast - that shuts the whole town down. Phil's forced to stay in his quaint bed and breakfast, but... once the morning comes, and it's 6AM, and Sonny Bono tells you to put your little hand in his on the radio, he knows - as the audience is clued in - that he's living the same day over again. As some sort of cosmic "Hey. You. We're talking to you.", he's forced to learn the rules of purgatory and straighten himself out, lest he keep his calendar on the same day forever.

The benefit of a film like this is that it always seems to pop up when you need a reminder of how people should act. Toward the end of the film, the obvious might seem to occur - characters learn their lessons and lives are redeemed, putting everything right and moving on with itself. Spoiler? whatever. That's formula - and it's effective, mostly in the hands of the actors. Bill Murray, funny and surprisingly deep as always, lends himself to his fullest, showing such an understanding of the character and the situation that he's at times unrecognizable. It's among his finest work, dramatic or otherwise. Andie McDowell and Chris Elliot deliver the expected sturdy support. Elliot is a hard actor to cast, but he's normally gentle in smaller roles, when he's not expected to improvise and exploit the grosser sides of the human body (here's lookin' at you, Scary Movie 2). McDowell, on the other hand, has rarely been better than she is, here. Undergoing her own subtle changes throughout the same day, growing as a character while not really having the chance to grow on her own, but through the growth of Phil. Which is a mark of the excellent screenplay, and direction from Harold Ramis (Stripes, Ghostbusters, etc.). Ramis is one of the finest directors Hollywood has produced, and has produced and directed some of the classic modern comedies.

Groundhog Day has become sort of a... benchmark film. Not groundbreaking, though certainly nothing to scoff at, it has a huge following, and is one of those movies you seem to forget about until you hear someone mention it or you run across it on TV. That's what a good film does - it gets under your skin in a way that doesn't leave, and is 'triggered' in a way by other senses. Ramis had crafted one of his masterpieces in a career full of genius films. And Bill Murray's performance, for my money, is a shining example of how comedy can't exist with drama. Even Saturday Night Live knows that, and it might be because of him.