“I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be gray, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life.”
—Phil Connors in Groundhog Day
Who among us, even on the balmiest days when the Polar Vortex is off tormenting someone else, has not wanted to make that forecast? But how many of us, thus sunk in despair, have not been vaulted back to equilibrium by another look at Groundhog Day? A much smaller number, surely, but by far the happier crowd.
For that, credit Harold Ramis, the movie’s director and co-screenwriter who died Monday at 69.
Ramis made a lot of funny movies, including Animal House, Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, and Analyze This. But Groundhog Day is in a class by itself. For my money, you have to go back to Preston Sturges’s ’40s comedies to find its equal. Irony of ironies, no matter how often you hit repeat, this story of a man living the same day over and over just keeps getting better.
Movies, of course, are collaborative ventures. Danny Rubin’s original script provided the concept. Bill Murray did his best work as the cynical, smartass weatherman Phil Connors (who blessedly, though he achieves enlightenment over the course of the story, never stops being a smartass). Andie MacDowell is a charming foil, and Stephen Tobolowsky is the perfect insurance salesman from hell. But truly, cast and crew are all peerless. Why play favorites?
That said, Groundhog Day is Ramis’s movie. He co-wrote the script (even co-authored the hilariously peppy song that plays under the credits [“I’m your weatherman!”]). And very few directors have known more about how to get laughs. What distinguished Ramis was his insistence that laughs could be cheap but they had to be real: the humor in this movie always arises out of the characters—if different characters said the same lines, they wouldn’t be funny at all. But that wouldn’t be a Harold Ramis movie.
At the Analyze This press junket, a writer told the director that his niche had become “goofy redemption comedy.”
“I’ll take that,” Ramis said.
This is a great romantic comedy. More accurately, this is a great movie. As with all great movies, its truth are immutable and its fans are obsessive. We can’t stop watching, laughing, counting (there are 38 days depicted, Rita slaps Phil 10 times), pondering and puzzling, and then, like the all-night carolers in Punxsutawney, going back and doing it over again. My wife and I have each gotten the date of our wedding anniversary wrong more than once, but we both know that come Feb.2, we’ll be curling up with Groundhog Day.
You know a movie script is special when you catch yourself cribbing heavily from its dialogue in everyday conversation. There are two movies I know almost by heart. One is The Lady Eve and the other is Groundhog Day.
“OK, rise and shine, campers, and don’t forget your booties ‘cause it’s coooold out there today.”
“I’m a god. I’m not the God … I don’t think.”
“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”
Phil: “Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?”
Mrs. Lancaster: “I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen.”
And my favorite, when Phil is drinking in the bowling alley with the two locals:
Phil: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
Ralph: “That about sums it up for me.”
Even the throwaway lines are funny: I’d seen the movie a dozen times or more before, while watching the scene where the three elderly ladies have a blowout while driving through town, I heard one of them exclaim, “You’ve totaled it!”
I usually can’t stand high concept movies. To me they come off like extended skits that wear out their welcome long before the halfway mark. I certainly can’t think of another movie where a cad becomes a decent human being that doesn’t set my teeth on edge (yeah, I’m looking at you, Christmas Carol). This one is different, maybe because its premise is so universal—and because the movie wears that fact so lightly. Its only rival in the “Great Movies Driven by Gimmicks” category is It’s a Wonderful Life, another comedy that takes you deep but not, as Preston Sturges put it, “deep dish.”
Structurally, Groundhog Day runs like a swiss watch (yes, IMDb lists a lot of goofs, but hey, even swiss watches aren’t perfect). There’s Phil in despair at the thought of doing it all over, then Phil exploiting his predicament to get rich and get laid, then Phil the suicide, and finally Phil the man redeemed by love. That last bump in this “do it wrong ’til you do it right” scenario could have soured everything, but somehow it doesn’t. Phil goes through so much to lose his selfishness, to put self aside, that his redemption feels earned. He deserves Andie MacDowell’s Rita only once he stops trying to con her, when he is content to love her with no thought of gain.
The movie succeeds for the same reason: it never tries to con you or force itself on you. Yes, it wants to make you laugh, and it wants to make a point, but it never uses comedy merely as a means to a serious end. The comedy is part of the point. We’ve all felt like a squirrel on a wheel at one time or another. We’ve been told by gurus of all stripes that we must lose our selves to gain the world. But rarely have we been told this—and rarely so well—and then reminded that it’s also funny, that life is tragedy and comedy all at once and only a fool would try to separate them.
Groundhog Day is a lot like a soufflé: hard work that produces something lighter than air. Unlike a soufflé, it never grows old or stale. It’s like the best of recurring dreams, so ineffable and artless that it doesn’t even seem to cast a shadow.
Thank you, Harold Ramis, wherever you are. Thank you again, and again, and again.