The fourth in a series where Pop Lifer tests music, film, television etc by the rules laid down in Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar”: “Did you improve on the design?/Did you do something new?”. If the answer is yes to either of those questions, you qualify for the Lupe Fiasco Award for Services to Pop Culture.
“They say we’re young and we don’t know/We won’t find out until we grow.”
This is a film which unites Buddhists, the Catholic Church and traditionally liberal film critics. It is a film which dances merrily between ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and “Se7en” without ever tripping over.
20 years ago yesterday “Groundhog Day” was released to pleasant surprise and not half bad takings. The set-up you will be familiar with. Bill Murray begins as a charmless going nowhere local weatherman who is forced to repeat the same day in the same small town trapped in a peculiar existential melting pot with no clear get out.
One of the bravest elements of the film is that the set-up is never given a rationale or logic. It just is. And eventually it just stops. This contributed to a reception that acknowledged “Groundhog Day”’s quality but not necessarily its significance. It was a satisfying film first time around, maybe over long, maybe unimaginatively shot, but its wraparound arc of cynicism defeated by idealism was neat, Bill Murray was very good and there were enough stand-out moments of genuine amusement (not least those involving Ned Ryerson) to please that notoriously fickle paying public (yes, you could be fickle before Twitter).
In the intervening period, and not unlike “The Shawshank Redemption”, it’s reputation has snowballed, its title is now part of the international English lexicon, and it is often regarded as the best 90s Hollywood comedy. This is because on repeat viewings, “Groundhog Day” proves to be exceptional – indeed unique. Pop Lifer knows this to be true because the great Roger Ebert says so.
It is extraordinary what the film manages to carry off. The set-up can be viewed as a rom com with a neat twist; a challenge to the very existence of God (see clip below); or a metaphor for all existence, a pursuit of spiritual and collective meaning over individual happiness (hence the Buddhist and Catholic kite mark). Or it can be seen as a sideways jab at small town existence and small lives (hence its pervading popularity in Shoreditch).
That the small town triumphs over the small mind in a Capra like fuzziness is hardly a surprise and could also be seen as merely adding to a long-established tradition. Unlike “It’s A Wonderful Life” however, where the nightmare vision lasts barely a reel, “Groundhog Day” is dominated by struggle and failure – not circumstantial, like George Bailey’s, but deliberate and chosen.
In effect, Murray begins as a sardonic, almost nihilistic figure (something like Kevin Spacey’s Se7en character but without the peeled fingertips and Fed Ex package). By the end, he has transformed into a life reaffirming Jimmy Stewart figure but without the angels and cutey pie kids, just Andie McDowell. McDowell is also excellent throughout – carrying lightly the risky role of wholesome spiritualness with enough spark and spine to actually represent a worthy reward for Murray’s struggles (unlike in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” where she is utterly charmless and represents the worst choice Hugh Grant has ever made – and that includes “Nine Months” and Divine Brown).
“Groundhog Day” is a unique rom com that adheres to no playbook. Suicide sequences, morally dubious seductions, gluttony, alcoholism, cynicism, jaded feel good and tiresome schmaltz. One of the most affecting scenes is not the first dewy-eyed perfect winter evening of snowball fights and significant eye contact between Murray and McDowell but the second. Murray forced to repeat the trick, on double speed, desperate to rekindle the previous night but unable to do so and languishing, failing and flaying as he does.
Bill Murray’s character is easy to laugh at but difficult to like and “Groundhog Day” can also be difficult to watch. The despair and frustration at Murray’s predicament can spread. The film bravely has an uneven pace and audiences could be forgiven for wondering how this film might end, if at all.
By the end however, we are comfortable with the resolution because what we have witnessed is not a triumph of a picture box American ideal but a single man not being defeated by our shared common failures. “Groundhog Day” has no meet cutes or “is it raining I hadn’t noticed?” denouements; just a slow and very painful reacquaintance for Bill Murray’s bitter local news weatherman of what is good about life. It’s ‘thunderbolt city’ moment centres around a clock radio.
This is why the film endures. The pain and struggle lasts long enough, is true enough and is funny enough to withhold the weight of a slightly schmaltzy, group hug ending. It is no coincidence that even on February 3rd – the day after cinema’s longest day – that Sonny and Cher play again and are allowed to deliver the first, fateful line to “I’ve Got You Babe” before being cut off. Maybe the film’s fortune cookie message was being delivered daily and we hadn’t noticed….
“They say we’re young and we don’t know/We won’t find out until we grow”