50 years, 50 films: Groundhog Day (1993)
Haven’t we already included this film? No, it just feels that way.
How many films have changed the language? Jaws 2 is one. The phrase “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” is recycled and reshaped by newspapers every day. Anybody unexposed to Casablanca could — like the chap in an undoubtedly apocryphal story about Hamlet – emerge from a first screening remarking that it was too full of clichés. There are a few more. But few have done so much, so unstoppably as Groundhog Day. Obviously, the tradition at the heart of the film goes back several centuries, but, until Harold Ramis’s priceless comedy came along, the phrase had no connotations with tedious repetition.
A great film requires more than a great premise. But it can’t be denied that the high-concept in Groundhog Day is up there with those in It’s a Wonderful Life or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A man gets to live the same day over and over again. He passes through surprise, despair and cynicism before — this is Hollywood, remember — happening upon a kind of redemption. One can’t help but ponder what sort of unending nightmare Kafka would have made of the piece. At any rate, the man behind Caddyshack was always likely to leaven the misery with some optimism.
Mind you, if we are to believe certain reports, the story does have terrifying subtexts. Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays the hapless Ned Ryerson, claims that Ramis told him the story lasts a wearying 10,000 years. Surely, it wouldn’t take that long to learn ice sculpture and basic decency. Anyway, to sell that kind of comic-misery you need an actor with some solidity and Bill Murray was there to make it real and unreal. A word should also be said about Andie MacDowell. The former model has got some stick over the years, but she does very good exasperation and proves that, despite the naysayers, she deserved her time under the spotlights during the early 1990s.
The film does have some problems. What sane person would deny that Murray is a lot more interesting as the cad than as the cheery suitor. You could say the same of Ed Norton in American History X or Scrooge in every production of A Christmas Carol (including the one starring Bill Murray). There is also something a little dubious about the hero’s preplanned seduction of Ms MacDowell. Sure, he ends up “being himself” and setting aside the tricks. But a great deal of creepy dishonesty precedes that epiphany.
What does he care, he’s God. No, that’s not right. He’s a God. Well, that’s all right then. A singularly brilliant comedy that repays (ahem) repeated viewing.
Other films considered for 1993 include Short Cuts, The Actress, Farewell My Concubine, Thirty Two Films About Glenn Gould and The Wedding Banquet.