*This review is part of Ryan McNeill’s Blind Spots series.
Let me start with a confession – a confession that might sound elitist, though I really don’t intend it as such: I’ve always felt that certain films are too accessible for me to watch. They’re too readily available. Everyone’s seen them and they’re always on TV, so I assume at some point I’ll get around to seeing them eventually. The problem is that I never do. In the same way that a city’s residents don’t visit its historical landmarks with the appetite of a tourist – reasoning that those sights are always going to be there for them to see – I’ve always thought that I can watch Groundhog Day, or Back to the Future, or A Christmas Story some other time. That time has never arrived.
This month’s blind spots entry, then, isn’t a massive awards winner, or a canonical work from a well-regarded auteur. It’s Groundhog Day. A film that played to strong box office and respectable reviews at the time of its release but didn’t really rise to perennial TV favorite and Great American Comedy status until a few years later. Now, it is a film everyone knows of, almost everyone has seen and many love quite a bit.
If you have been living under the same rock as me, let me explain things a bit. Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as Phil, a lovably arrogant Pennsylvania weatherman – he’s a lovable in a way only Murray can make intolerable characters lovable. He sees himself above everything and everyone in the way only celebrities and politicians do; and he thinks of himself as a bit of both: the charisma and popularity of a star and the authority of a politician. At the beginning of the film, Phil is invited to Punxsutawney, a small town in Pennsylvania, to report on the annual Groundhog Day for the third year in a row. It’s an event wherein a groundhog, also named Phil, is believed to be predicting the length of the rest of the winter season. It is ceremoniously presented and everyone just has a bit of harmless fun and goes home.
To Phil, the weatherman, this is neither harmless nor fun. He’s utterly disdainful of all the people he believes to be idiots and can’t wait to get back to Pennsylvania. On February 2nd, the big day, he presents his report with a blasé expression on his face in front of his producer (Rita, played by Andie MacDowell) and his cameraman and gets straight back to his van to head back. Unfortunately for him, a blizzard has shut all the roads down and he’s forced to spend an extra day in Punxsutawney. But that’s not quite bad enough. At 6 o’clock in the morning, Phil wakes up to a curious scene: the exact same scene as Groundhog Day, down to the smallest details. February 2nd has repeated itself. And then it repeats itself again… and again… and again. On a loop, in a time warp, forever; and the catch is that no one but Phil notices this. He’s the only one who’s reliving February 2nd. Everyone else is just living it.
It’s a curious concept but one that proves incredibly rewarding, both for Phil and the film that contains him. Phil is originally irritated by the repetition of his days and resorts to sex, booze, punching an old classmate and multiple attempts at suicide to release his tension, but he eventually learns to treat the situation as a tremendous gift. He learns to play the piano, speak French and impress Rita. But beyond that, he comes out of this a changed man. He becomes charitable and giving.
The film comes out triumphant, because it jumps over every single trap that can drag it into saccharine territory. Though it ends on a predictably clichéd and sweet note, it doesn’t leave the audience asking for anything different. It takes a character so completely unlikeable and puts him on an arc that feels neither unbelievable nor unacceptable. In effect, we change with the film. We long for that sweet ending because gradually, Bill Murray has made us root for a character we were so thoroughly annoyed by in the beginning.
Really, the enduring success of Groundhog Day comes down to the brilliance of Murray’s performance. His career doesn’t ask for any more renditions of the bitter, misanthropic funnyman, but this is the cream of the crop. His characterization is enriched with new layers of understanding with every repetition of the day and never fails to make the audience see him in a new light. It’s a work of superb comic ease and incredible dramatic weight that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else as Phil. Often times an actor’s performance in one particular film is so powerful that it influences the rest of his career and casts a shadow over his public persona. Perhaps one could make such a case for Murray’s performance here, and that’s not meant to be reductive. Most other actors could only wish to have such a fine performance as their landmark work.