Thursday, March 19, 2020

Yes, Groundhog Day Is A Comedy Worth All The Hype

OK, yes, somehow, I hadn't seen Groundhog Day until very recently. I've been well aware of its pop-culture ubiquity given how often it's been quoted and referenced in pop culture. Heck, Dodge even did a Groundhog Day-themed Super Bowl commercial complete with the original cast! Despite its massive pop culture presence, Groundhog Day had managed to elude me all my life for no real reason other than that it never seemed like a massive priority to me. Well, I finally popped my Groundhog Day cherry just two weekends ago and now you can count me in as part of the hordes of people who enjoy this particular Harold Ramis directorial effort.

For those who, like me until recently, have never seen Groundhog Day, the main character is a weatherman by the name of Phil Connors (Bill Murray). Connors harbors higher ambitions as an on-camera personality and an even more intense hatred for his annual assignment of covering the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It's a day he always dreads and this year is no different. Well, at least it seems that way until Connors goes to bed that night only to wake up on Groundhog Day once again. A startled Connors soon realizes that he's reliving the same day over and over again. He's trapped on a holiday he can't stand in a town he cares even less for.

Smartly, Groundhog Day doesn't spend any time explaining how or why Connors has gotten into himself a time-loop. The explanation isn't necessary to either the character or the comedy. What is vital is what the character does with his newfound ability to live the same day on repeat. At first, Connors mostly engages in selfish comedic shenanigans. This part of the story makes sharp use of Murray's abilities as a comedic actor to be a devious scoundrel who never quite fully alienates the audience with his behavior. Partially this is because of the relatable quality of Murray's work as Phil Connor. Yes, the protagonist of Groundhog Day is boorish, but c'mon, who wouldn't eat whatever they wanted if they found they were suddenly immortal?

That concept of immortality plays a big part into the middle-portion of Groundhog Day's story. One of the interesting surprises of the screenplay for this movie, which is penned by Ramis and Danny Rubin, is how Connors' character arc is marked by his evolving view of how he utilizes his newfound abilities. At first, he uses this repeated day for selfish gain, then he believes he's nothing short of a God because of his inability to die and finally, he realizes the necessity of doing things for others. Being a mainstream American comedy, it's obvious from the get-go that Groundhog Day will have a redemption character arc for Phil Connors but the way it goes about that route manages to really surprise in terms of it going down some truly thoughtful paths on the road to Connor's personal growth.

All the while, the script delivers a steady stream of gags that take full advantage of the central conceit of a man being stuck in the same day over and over. Despite the inherent concept suggesting repetition, Murray and the writers find enjoyable comedy out of the various different types of reactions Connors has to the same conversation. An interaction with a High School chum, Ned Ryerson (Stephen Toblowsky in a fantastic supporting turn) is an especially good example of this. Ryerson introductory dialogue may stay the same but how Connors reacts each time he encounters these interactions vary greatly. Each of these variations provides some highly amusing material.

Through this approach to its comedy, Groundhog Day manages to be that most wonderful creation, a yukfest that's both humorous and heartfelt. That latter quality makes it especially easy to see why this movie has touched so many people on a profound level over the last twenty-seven years. Who couldn't be won over by a story about the extremely gradual process of changing ourselves for the better? It's not something that happens overnight (or even over a single Groundhog Day!) but rather over a period of time as prolonged as the amount of time Phil Connors spend reliving the same day on repeat. Combing that touching message with plenty of laughs and a great Bill Murray performance and that's how you get a classic like Groundhog Day!

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