If I could list the most influential movies of the last 25 years, Groundhog Day would no doubt be one of them. If you’re like me, and a fan of any sci-fi shows in the past two decades, you have no doubt seen a “Groundhog Day” inspired episode of that series. The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural are among many examples, but if your show has a sci-fi bent at all, the odds are good that if you’re on long enough, you’ll end up getting one. These days, Groundhog Day can refer to two different things, the holiday or this movie. It could be argued that the movie is more popular than the holiday on which it is named. Even if you have never seen the movie, there’s a good chance you know what the movie is about.
By now, most people know the plot of this movie, if not seeing it, then through cultural osmosis. It concerns a stuck-up, stand-offish weatherman named Phil Connors who goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover their Groundhog Day festivities, who for some reason has to live the same day over and over again. The movie follows Phil over an undetermined amount of time, as he deals with living the same day, and eventually becomes a better person. Only then is he able to progress to February 3rd.
For starters, this movie would not work without Bill Murray, period. I would say next to Venkman from Ghostbusters, this is Murray’s best performance. This is pretty much the perfection of the “smug asshole” character that Murray played consistently through this period of his career. What Murray has going on for him is that he is always likeable, even when he is being horrible. We want to buy into him and his redemption and are disappointed whenever “I got you babe” plays on the radio, meaning he is reliving Groundhog Day over again. I mean, so much of this film relies on Murray’s reactions to everything, put someone else in this role, and the whole movie may collapse. That is not to discount the supporting cast, especially Andie MacDowell, but this is Murray’s show.
On a technical level, I am blown away by this movie. Because the same thing happens every “day,” the viewer is forced to see the same things over and over again. In less confident hands, this could become as repetitive to us as it is to Phil. It doesn’t because of the tremendous editing and directing. The first few times we see the “day” we see it in depth, so that going forward, we know what to look for, and what is going to happen. As the movie goes on, we aren’t hammered with the same things over and over again unless there is a reason for the thing to be brought back up again. There are several excellent montages throughout the film, that show the progress that Phil makes over time, without actually taking too much of the running time of the movie. The running time of the movie is excellent, if it was too long, the movie would get really annoying, but it is paced so well that it feels like the perfect time for the movie to end when it does, which is a rarity in Hollywood these days.
Another thing I like about this movie is that it doesn’t explain why this is happening to Phil. In an earlier version of the script, there was an explanation of what happened with a ex-girlfriend of Phil’s using witchcraft, but it was stripped out of the movie in the final script because the writer thought it was unnecessary. This movie is more of a morality tale, about how Phil Connors becomes a better person. Any explanation would take away from the laser-like focus the movie has on Phil. The idea that basically the universe punished Phil into being a better person is good enough for me.
Watching this movie in 2018, this movie is just as good as when it was released 25 years ago. It is not a surprise that it has such a staying power compared to other movies of the time. It has a timeless story of becoming a better person simply by empathizing with other people, that resonates no matter what year is. Harold Ramis directs this perfectly, in what is easily his best film, and Bill Murray shows why he’s a comedy legend.