Imagine having to live the same day of your life over and over again. Whatever you do on that day, you wake up the following morning to discover the same day beginning again. In some ways this is good: you can stop worrying about cholesterol, for a start. Concern for the future becomes a thing of the past. But if you’re trying to make Andie MacDowell fall in love with you it’s not so good. No matter how much progress you make, the following day you’ll have to start again.
This is Bill Murray’s predicament in Groundhog Day, a romantic comedy directed by Harold Ramis. Murray plays a weatherman for a Pittsburgh television station who has to travel to the small town of Punxsatawnay every year to cover a local festival in which a groundhog is asked by the town elders whether they should expect six more weeks of Winter or an early Spring. This hick town and its loathsome ritual represent everything Murray despises about his dead-end career. Yet he is forced to cover the groundhog festival until the end of time.
In Hollywood, a film which relies on a single idea—Ghostbusters, Twins, Kindergarten Cop—is known as ‘hi-concept’ (usually a synonym for ‘lowbrow’). Groundhog Day is unusual in that its single idea is so ingenious you’re happy to sit back and watch as all its implications are worked out. It’s also weirdly engrossing. As it dawns on Bill Murray that he is stuck in the same day for eternity you feel something close to panic. Groundhog Day is a comedy with a profoundly horrifying concept at its core.
It’s also about 10 times smarter than your average Hollywood movie. Like Back To The Future, scenes which appear superfluous at first are given meaning as the story unravels. Murray stops by the table of a beautiful woman, asks her her name, where she went to school, who her 12th grade English teacher was…then goes on his way. The following day—or rather, the same day, 24 hours later—he stops at her table again, only this time he pretends to recognise her, producing all the facts she gave him earlier. Sure enough, he ends up in bed with her. When she hesitates at the last moment he proposes marriage, knowing he’ll never have to go through with it. If you’re destined to re-live the same night for ever all you can have are one-night stands.
But if at first this is a blessing it soon becomes a curse. Murray falls in love with his producer, Andie MacDowell. He has barely spoken to her before the day of the festival so he only has the remainder of the day to win her. Even if he succeeds it scarcely matters because the next day he’ll be back to square one.
Not that this stops him trying. The funniest sequence in the film occurs as Murray perfects his chat-up routine. Each time he fluffs it, he starts again the following day and corrects his mistake. When he proposes a toast to the groundhog she says, “I usually drink to world peace.” Next time round he gets it right. After months of practice he finally gets the routine perfect only to be rebuffed at the last minute. The prospect of starting all over again is appalling, but not as appalling as it is when he finally gets her into bed. As Murray says to her sleeping form, “The worst part is that tomorrow you’ll have forgotten all about this and you’ll treat me like a jerk again.” As a plot device for keeping two lovers apart this knocks spots off luekemia (remember Love Story?).
Bill Murray’s character is at first ideally suited to this predicament: an opportunist with few friends finds himself in a situation pregnant with opportunity but in which it’s impossible to form any lasting relationships. But Murray the actor—who often seems indistinguishable from the cynics he plays—is reformed along with his character. After a string of critical (though not commercial) flops, he turns in a quietly touching performance. The vulnerability which made him so attractive in Ghostbusters turns into something bordering on despair here. For a comedy, Groundhog Day can be surprisingly moving.
The horror of Murray’s situation leaves you reeling. What is the point of living in a world in which nothing you do effects the future? Murray could forget about MacDowell and spend his time in the local library studying Western philosophy, but what would be the point if any work he produced would have to be written all over again the following day? He could rob a bank—come to think of it, he does rob a bank—but the money is gone the next morning, along with the house he bought with it. Murray, an ambitious man, finds himself in a world in which it’s impossible to achieve anything.
Of course, the effect of all this is to teach Murray the true meaning of life and in this respect Groundhog Day is unremarkable. But it would be churlish to condemn it for its lapse into sentimentality. Groundhog Day is an ordinary comedy transformed into a dazzling piece of entertainment by an extraordinary idea.