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Groundhog Day (1993)

by on 2010/03/21

Rather than try something “clever” — like an opening paragraph which also serves as the closer — how about the admission of a deep, dark secret?  Groundhog Day marks the first time I begin writing without knowing what rating to assign.

I usually know how I feel by the end of a viewing.  The review is then a matter of explaining why.  Now I feel torn between two different grades and am too stubborn to compromise between them.  Bear with me as I work through my own observations and figure out how I truly feel in this case.  Don’t worry.  I’ll only do it once.

Groundhog Day follows an unspecified period of time in the life of Phil (Bill Murray), a self-important big city weatherman with prediction issues.  He is sent to rural Punxsutawney with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and their cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott).  Once there, he discovers he cannot escape the town.  Furthermore, the world resets itself to February 2nd with each subsequent sleep, and he alone notices the looping time.  He doesn’t seem to be able escape the cycle, though the bulk of the story chronicles his attempts to do just that.

It seems appropriate that a tale so concerned with repetition should find acclaim only after multiple viewings in the years following its release.  Many call it a comedy, but I’m not sure it is, at least not in the way most people intend that label.  It has its humorous aspects, but darkly so, and works mostly within the conventions of a fantasy.  The film most reminds me of Scrooged — albeit using a different mode of repetition — also starring Bill Murray.

While unusual, the technique is hardly unique.  Audiences have puzzled through similar approaches before and since:  A Christmas Carol, episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, various incarnations of Star Trek, Run Lola Run, and The Butterfly Effect, among innumerable others. Rarely is the device exploited in quite the same way, however.  Director Harold Ramis treats the experience as a sort of feature-length montage.  Rather than employing real time or a comprehensive accounting of activities, he shares only those highlights that most distinguish one particular day from the rest.  Thus, unlike most popular entertainment, Groundhog Day forces us to define “progress” as the evolution of a character, rather than the passage of a plot.

Unfortunately repetition is, by its nature, repetitious.  Montage helps mitigate the effect but, by the midpoint, I had already tired of the conceit.  That fatigue led me to explore other criticisms I might not have considered otherwise.  For instance, it seemed to me that Phil made progress he should not have been able to achieve alone.  His advancement should benefit from his own experiences, not others’.  To get around this pitfall, I have to assume he spent his day(s) repeating a number of identical tasks, and a logistically impractical number at that.  Still, it’s hard to blame the movie for not explaining such detail:  it feels long enough already and, as a fantasy, is exempt from all manner of logical responsibility.

What I have more trouble overlooking is the spurning of a convention viewers may not be consciously aware of:  The narrative doesn’t play fair; it doesn’t share its own rules.  We might guess or infer them, but without confirmation.  I can accept a lack of agency for the time loop itself.  It serves as a form of immanent justice until a lesson has been learned, but what is that lesson?  We never know for certain and even the ultimate outcome fails to provide a solution.  Will freedom come when Phil resigns himself to his fate?  Acts selflessly?  Wins Rita’s acceptance?  Recognizes the value of a community?  Who knows?

To defend such ineffability with “Well that’s just life!” would be unacceptable, especially given the premise itself is nothing like life.  I don’t expect spoon-feeding and happy-ever-afters.  Many films lack a Hollywood ending, but succeed in playing fair:  Before Sunset, Donnie Darko, Escape from New York, The Great Escape, High Plains Drifter, and Mulholland Drive, for example.  Their rules may defy mainstream norms, but they make sense in their own reality, and their internal logic is followed to a more satisfying effect.

Where does all of this reasoning lead and leave me? The facts are:  I think the movie does more right than wrong; it entertained me and got me thinking about metaphysics and epistemology; I was glad to see it and will likely see it again in the future.

In conclusion, rather than try something “clever” — like a closing paragraph which echoes the opening one — how about the admission of a deep, dark secret?  The end of Groundhog Day failed to satisfy me, and I don’t expect its review to be any different.

* * * *

Rated PG for adult situations

101 minutes

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