Cine-East Film Club Presents #47: 1993, Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis)

by George_East on July 21, 2014

Phil Connors: ‘What if there is no tomorrow, there wasn’t one today’.

The Cine-East Film Club is back after a couple of months off caused by work, more work, a young baby and World Cup related distractions.    Regular readers of the Cine-East Film Club’s presentations will recall that the Club was, before the interlude, alternating its usual presentations with films dedicated to six key film figures who have sadly passed away this year: so far The Talented Mr Ripley (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Daises (Vera Chytilova), Cross of Iron  (Maximillian Schell) and The Long Good Friday (Bob Hoskins).   There is a tribute to French New Wave director, Alain Resnais in the pipeline.

And yes on a separate note, I know I have long promised a John Ford western – it will be worth the wait I assure you.

This week’s film is dedicated to that wonderful writer, actor and director, Harold Ramis, who passed away in February.  He was a man who played a large part in the childhood and adolescence of many of my generation.    Cutting his teeth at Chicago’s legendary Second City Comedy Club, and then with National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live, Ramis formed part of that generation of American comics, along with John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevvy Chase and Dan Ackroyd who seemed to be ever presents in the films my friends and I saw on video in the early to mid-1980s.

Ramis wrote frat-boy comedy, Animal House and co-wrote (with Dan Ackroyd) and starred as geeky scientist, Egon Spengler, in Ghostbusters (almost this week’s Presentation).  But his finest achievement, in my view, is this week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation, Groundhog Day.

Sometimes films work wonderfully because the idea is so simple.  Jaws is perhaps the archetypal example  – a giant killer shark menaces a seaside town.  This is the so-called high concept film.  An idea that you can describe in one sentence.   There was a vogue for such films in the 1980s and 1990s  (as brilliantly parodied in Robert Altman’s biting satire of contemporary Hollywood, The Player).   Most of them were terrible.

Groundhog Day on the other hand was so good that it has become a phrase that has entered the language generally, a Catch 22 of the movie world – its high concept, a particular kind of déjà vu:  a day that endlessly repeats itself.  England’s predictably early World Cup exit elicited references to Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day’s success is in a large part down to Bill Murray’s hilarious portrayal of misanthropic and cynical weatherman, Phil Connors, who over the course of the film learns how to use the endlessly repeating day to his advantage and, at least on the surface, becomes a better man as a result.

Although Groundhog Day is on the surface that most sick inducing of genres, a conventional romantic comedy including the required happy ending as Phil Connors and his new producer, Rita Hanson go from mutual antipathy to romantic cohabitation, in my view, the film is actually far more caustic than that reading allows.  In many ways its genius is in subverting the romantic comedy and showing that with enough planning and guile, the bad guy can get the girl.

The basic premise of Groundhog Day has Connors reluctantly being sent to cover the (true) annual groundhog day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, along with Rita and cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott) and finding himself trapped in the town for an extra night as a result of a blizzard.  The next morning though is the same day, or at least it is for Connors – for everyone else they are just living it for the first time.

One of the things that makes the film work so well is that Ramis does not mess about in getting us to this point.  It is probably only 20 or so minutes in before we have got the basic set up.  Connors wakes up at 6am to Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe, there is a weather forecast on the radio, he goes down to breakfast in the hotel, as he walks down the street he bumps into a former high school classmate and now insurance salesman, the intensely irritating, Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) and continues to the site of the Groundhog Day festivities, where Connors gives his report, practically spitting with contempt for the whole shebang.   The crew get stuck in the town overnight.  Rita and Larry are staying in a different hotel to Phil. That’s pretty much it.

The time loop that Connors finds himself in from the next morning and then for the rest of the film goes through three phases.

Firstly Connors is just confused as to what the fuck is going on.

Then he seeks to take advantage of the situation by using his knowledge that there are no consequences to his action to his advantage.  He goes on drunken sprees, gets thrown in jail and even kidnaps the groundhog, Punxtsutwaney Phil.   The time loop is tested to its ultimate extreme when following a police chase Connors crashes and dies, only to find himself waking up again as the clock clicks to 06.00 and I’ve Got You Babe is playing on the radio.   There is, seemingly, nothing that will break the cycle.

As more and more 2 Februaries are repeated, Connors finds himself falling for the prissy Rita.  This is where the film subverts the rom com stereotype.   Phil plays it long by gradually getting more and more information about Rita’s likes and dislikes to use to seduce her, when this doesn’t work he starts to become the ‘good man’ she envisages in her conservative way as her ideal – he learns the piano, and to speak to French.

He becomes, so it appears at least, an all round nice guy, helping people out and generally being the man everyone wants to hang out with.  A man with new priorities in his life who becomes the object of every woman’s desire as a result, until Rita ‘buys’ a night with him at an auction held at a charity fundraiser.

This is a million miles from the cynical world weary and selfish Phil Connors that we originally meet, but it is far from clear that it is a real change in character.  The whole thing has been planned over, presumably, thousands of 2 Februaries.

The suggestion on the surface of the film that it is love that has finally allowed the endless loop to be broken and the 3 February to be reached, and that Phil Connors has himself become Punxsutawney Phil, by deciding voluntarily to stay in the town with Rita, might disguise something a whole lot more contrived on Phil’s part.  After all just as there is no marriage proposal (unlike the standard Austenian rom com resolution device), merely cohabitation, they are only intending to ‘rent initially’.  He has achieved his aim of bedding Rita, how long they will stay together or in town is another question altogether.

Groundhog Day is pretty much the perfect mainstream comedy of the last couple of decades.  Although it is not screwball comedy, the greats of that genre like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges would have been proud, I think,  to have called it their own, even if there is something a little less transgressive going on underneath that you will find in, say, I Married A Male War Bride and something a little less anarchic than, say, The Palm Beach Story.   Even the reliably wooden Andie MacDowell is watchable in it, in what might be her best performance this side of sex, lies and videotape and Short Cuts.

It is a remarkable achievement. Harold Ramis RIP


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