10 Key Ingredients of Groundhog Day:
1. Bill Murray
Harold Ramis initially had Tom Hanks in mind for Groundhog Day, but realised that the audience always expect Hanks to be a nice guy. There’s no element of surprise when he turns, as it’s inevitable. With Bill Murray, you’re never quite sure. And he’s quite right; we love Murray no matter what he does, no matter how bastardly, because he is such a quick wit. But he doesn’t have to be lovable; we’d really rather he wasn’t, as it would defang him. He’s deadpan, dry, cynical, sarcastic. And dishevelled. Even if what he’s saying isn’t that funny (and it usually is), his delivery makes it so.
If Murray reportedly drove Ramis to distraction in the period preceding filming, he appears to have taken a laudably straightforward approach to his performance, simplifying any notes Ramis had for him to whether “good Phil” or “bad Phil” was required for a scene. And, most likely, such a pared down attitude ensures his spontaneity and free associations are retained throughout.
Because Murray was cast as Phil, we’re spared a conclusion in which the changed man transforms beyond recognition. We believe in him immediately as a misery guts who would rather being doing anything else than return to Punxsutawney yet again to report on the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He’s sarcastic or snide towards everyone he encounters, from doofus cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) to old schoolmate Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky), giving off the weary air of someone who finds the entire human race undeserving of any effort on his part.
This isn’t completely foreign territory for Murray, who essayed an only partially successful (except financially; it was a big hit) version of Ebenezer Scrooge five years earlier (as Frank Cross in Scrooged). Both required a self-serving prick (whom we love anyway, because he’s Bill Murray) to transform into a newly beneficent individual over the course of the movie. For Frank Cross, this takes one night. For Phil it takes one day, albeit repeated again and again for, well however long it takes (see below). Where Groundhog Day thankfully diverges significantly from Scrooged is in the low-key ending. Both find Murray getting the girl, but Scrooged also sees him expound on just how sincerely full of festive cheer he is; it’s difficult to believe Murray could keep his lunch down during this scene, and he has never looked more ill-at-ease.
Here, as you’d expect, his quick wit is fully on display; this might be the most roundly satisfying part he has taken (although serious actor Murray may not be so pleased with such an accolade). His scenes with Tobolowsky are justly famous, both for Tobolowsky’s insanely upbeat performance and Murray’s contrasting drollery (“Ned, I would love to stand here and talk to you… but I’m not going to”). And, despite what I said about serious actor Murray, he does get to show the acting chops he desperately wanted to flex. Groundhog Day can be seen in retrospect as a clear dividing line. He would carry on headlining broad comedies for another few years, but they’re faintly tepid affair. And, once he had established himself as an indie darling (by the end of the decade) he would limit himself to supporting turns.
We fully believe Phil when he descends into suicidal despair. We feel the painful grinding of gears as he attempts to ignite passion with Rita (Andie McDowall) through guileful repetition. We’ve already witnessed his subterfuge in bedding Nancy (Marita Geraghty), so when his unscrupulous behaviour meets with reiterated rejection from the one he cares about the only place to go is down. If this section isn’t dwelt upon for long, it has the necessary impact as we see Phil repeatedly ending his life. Ramis and co-writer Danny Rubin chose not to get any darker than this, but we’re in no doubt that Murray would have been up to the task of taking us there.
But the important element of Groundhog Day, which is a key to its longevity, is one that Scrooge lacks; balance. When Phil shifts toward altruism, we need it to be of the non-maudlin kind. And, as recognising that danger, Ramis serves us the death of the beggar at an early point in Phil’s upward trajectory. He can’t save him, no matter what he does. He has to accept his limitations. Later, he appears to have adjusted to a daily routine of repeated good deeds but it comes across neither as a born-again enlightenment nor blithe resignation; Murray cuts a delicate through-line between acceptance and contentment at his lot.
2. The Script
This is about Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin. Rubin wrote the original script, which began with Phil in the middle of one of his Groundhog days. It was Ramis who, although initially promising to retain the structure, eventually reneged on the grounds that we needed to see how Phil got there and how he was before. Rubin has since come round (well you’d have to, with such unanimous audience approval), but was put out for a while. The premise of repeating one day again and again and again isn’t a new one, although Rubin denied the majority of claims regarding the source of his inspiration. He said one such was the immortality theme of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, but in direct terms only William Dean Howells’ Christmas Every Day (in which a selfish boy must relive the same Christmas until he learns the true meaning of the festive season).
Rubin thought was that Phil’s repeat experiences would take place over thousands of years. The movie isn’t drawn on specifics, although a number of film buffs have attempted to work this out. Ramis initially suggested that the same day recurred over about ten years but reconsidered, concluding that the skill set Phil attains (at the piano, at ice sculpting) would require thirty-to-forty years. Within this he included what he referred to as the “misguided years”.
As noted, Rubin and Ramis consciously avoided exploring the Phil’s lowest state. We see him attempt to off himself, rob money from an security van, use deception for sexual gain, and kill the groundhog (and himself), but go too dark and you risk alienating the audience. I’m sure other writers have tackled this idea and included all manner of depravity; murder, rape, and assorted horrors committed by an individual unfettered from morality. It’s difficult to see how any of that would have served the tone of this story, however. What the writers discuss is provocative enough, and the receptiveness to Phil’s existential crisis suggests that their choices ensured it was relatable on a broad scale.
3. Taking a Concept and Making the Most of It
The next two points could be bracketed in with the script generally, but they’re worth considering separately. The “High Concept” movie is often a touchstone for comedies. A “What if?” scenario is hit upon, and then the filmmakers spend 90 minutes-plus failing to explore the idea or pussying out of its ramifications. We’ve seen a slew of these in post-Groundhog Hollywood, from Jim Carrey granted God-like powers (Bruce Almighty) to Adam Sandler fast-forwarding through the bad parts of his life (Click) to Jack Black hypnotised into seeing women’s inner beauty (Shallow Hal). The problem with extreme premises is that they encourage correspondingly glib life lessons to be learned. Obviously, the whole point is that these protagonists emerge from their experiences as better people. But this tends to involve spelling out exactly what they have learned, on the assumption that the audience are mush-brained idiots.
Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
Ralph: Yeah, that about sums it up for me.
We are never told outright what Phil has done to foster release at this time; after all, he has been performing good deeds as a daily routine; one assumes that it is because his personal desire (Rita) now converges with his path of self-improvement. Indeed, one of the best-conceived moments prior to this comes after Phil has been through the failed attempts to woo Rita and the dark night(s) of the soul. He lives a day with her where he is straight up about his situation with her, and it is a perfect day. But then he wakes up again at 6.00am to the sound of Sonny and Cher. While it becomes clear that it’s not sufficient for him only to find romantic fulfilment, at no point does the script feel the need to crudely verbalise this. It’s curious to note that Rubin originally intended to explain how Phil came to be in this trap (a spell cast by an ex-girlfriend of Phil’s), as this is exactly the sort of reductive measure many a high concept movie has employed; even reading that, you know the film would be immediately cheapened if such an element been incorporated.
4. The Passage of Time
It’s no small challenge to encapsulate the sense of endless days after days repeating themselves. I wouldn’t put Harold Ramis in the world-class category of comedy directors. Indeed, the only film of his that remotely approaches Groundhog Day is Caddyshack and it isn’t anywhere near the same class. As a writer, he has tended to take others’ scripts and adapt them to such a degree that he ends up sharing a screenplay credit. Which goes to indicate that he’s only as good as the idea he has first appropriated. He may improve on it, as he does here, but his projects don’t tend to show an immediately discerning eye (which may explain why his last project, the crash-and-burn Year One, was four years ago). He isn’t the most imaginative of directors, but comedy is a genre that tends to subsist on point-and-shoot men. The more’s the pity. What that does mean is, he gets out of the way for the performers to make the most of the material and, in Bill Murray’s case, that’s a godsend.
The basic technique Ramis employs to illustrate the passing of time in Groundhog Day is montage. It’s a short, sharp way of showing the repetition of day after day and a quick and clever means of pulling the gag of variation. So Phil’s increasing desperation to win Rita is illustrated in a series of cuts to different days of failure, culminating in a succession of face slaps. This is also used to show Phil’s manipulations (of women, Nancy and Rita) and perseverance (attempting to aid the beggar, his eternal first day’s piano lesson). There are, apparently, 38 different days shown in the film (I haven’t counted). That’s out of a conservative estimate of 11,000 to choose from (by Ramis’ revised account); the only conclusion the viewer can come to is that he must have done it a lot of times (more than the piano playing, it’s the ice sculpting that gets me). Perhaps the most visually memorable device is the giant clock slowly crashing over from 5:59 to 6:00 each morning; the weight of time presses down.
It makes up only a couple of minutes of screen time and, as emphasised already, Ramis and Rubin were right not to indulge in the extents of Phil’s possible waywardness. Yet dealing with not just Phil’s suicidal state but also his multiple suicides is worth considering for a moment. Such anguish is not a readily recognisable trope for mainstream comedies. I mean, there are a few (John Cusack in Better Off Dead… ), but they won’t be PG-rated family movies. Yet it’s important that Ramis and Rubin show Phil reaching rock bottom (even before this, we believe him when he says “I don’t even like myself”). And they do this first with a montage of death gags (as Phil says, “I didn’t just survive a wreck. I wasn’t just blown up. I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted and burned”) but then with one of Ramis’ rare directorial flourishes.
Phil leaps (Phil’s stunt man, anyway) from the town hall roof, descending to the ground arms outstretched in slow motion. It’s a defining image from the movie. It’s not only that the logical conclusion of being condemned to eternal repetition, Sisyphus-style, is the wish to escape it. It’s also that, if Rubin and Ramis were going to make the parallel of repeating the same day again and again to our daily drudgery, they absolutely needed to include the point where for some that becomes too much.
6. Universal Appeal
The speaks-to-everyone quality of Groundhog Day would usually be a cause of suspicion, and as often as not that sort of acclaim is countered by a backlash (The Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) If the reaction to a film probably shouldn’t be included on a list of reasons why a film is great, in this case the manner in which it has been greeted does tell us a lot about the substance of the thing. Ramis has spoken both about how rare it is for cinema to tackle existential themes (certainly with any degree of profundity) and how the widespread embrace of the film by different faiths took him by surprise. Religious groups (notably Christian ones, who presumably give a pass to Phil’s speculation that “I’m a god”) have a tendency to proclaim any movie offering spiritual affirmations their own, sometime without much discrimination due to the slim pickings available. Phil’s cyclic repeats could be seen as much as a metaphor for reincarnation as for being stuck in a common-or-garden rut (atheists and agnostics love the film too). Or even as a representation of Purgatory.
Notably, Phil gets what he wants (Rita) when he is no longer acting expressly to get what he wants. One might argue that the depth of Groundhog Day has been overstated, since its plot device and central theme are not exactly ground-breaking. However, such a view misses the key point; it achieves this with a lightness of touch. The real success of the movie is not what it says but how it says it. The chances of getting that right tonally are one in a million. (It’s also worth noting that there is no antagonist in this movie, except in so far as Phil is his own. It’s a good sign of the depth of a movie that it does not resort to externalising negative forces.)
7. Ned Ryerson
Stephen Toblowsky is the only actor in Groundhog Day able to steal a scene from Bill Murray. The chances are, if you mention the movie to anyone, he’ll be in the first couple of associations that come to mind (another will be “I Got You Babe”. Tobolowsky is generally a treat to watch in anything (which is fortunate, as his presence is ubiquitous), but Ned looks to go down as his defining role. Certainly the one he’ll be able to dine out on for the rest of his days. Insanely positive, unbelievably square, and possessed of a profession most right-thinking people would do anything to avoid (insurance salesman), Ned’s every mannerism and speech pattern (“Bing!”, “It’s a doozy!”) invite Phil’s wearily disdainful responses (“What’re you doing for dinner?” “Something else”).
It’s on Phil’s fourth day that we’re rewarded with our favourite Ned moment as, rather than engaging him in conversation or running away, Phil punches his lights out. And then there’s the turning of the tables, as Phil gets a little too friendly for Ned’s liking (“I have missed you so much”). It might be the greatest testament to Phil that he has changed sufficiently, he even takes on the well-meaning but hugely annoying Ned as his “new insurance agent” (“with the optional death and dismemberment plan”).
8. The Groundhog
He’s soooooo cute! (Not that I’d want to go near one; the critter bit Murray twice during filming.)
9. Gobbler’s Knob
The most astonishing fact of Gobbler’s Knob is that it is a real place and not an extravagant crudity on the part of the filmmakers.
10. The Supporting Players
A mention for a few members of Groundhog Day’s supporting cast. Chris Elliot has made a career of vaguely unsettling types and his highly uncool Larry is honed to perfection. His attempts to attract the ladies are toe curling and, like Ned, he’s a character whom Phil is cruel to but we completely see why. Elliot also gets a few lines that aren’t just funny at his own expense (“He might be okay… Oh. No, probably not” as Phil’s van explodes, “He was a really, really great guy, We really like him a lot” he lies following Phil’s demise).
Geraghty is great in an understated way as Nancy. Rick Ducommun (Gus) and Rick Overton (Ralph) have a fine rapport with Murray, propping up the bar and accompanying him on his train tracks jolly. Ducommun will be familiar to Joe Dante devotees for his role as Tom Hanks’ “tuna-neck” neighbour in The ‘Burbs. Ken Hudson Campbell’s “Man in Hallway” doesn’t get the notices Ned does, but he’s one of Phil’s daily essentials. His triumphant response to Phil’s poetic weather forecast (“Ciao!”) is marvellous. And then there’s one-scene-wonder Michael Shannon’s big screen debut, a mere babe-in-arms as Fred, the groom of Debbie (whom Phil persuades to go through with the wedding).
And One Not-So-Key Ingredient
Ramis and Rubin cite the instant chemistry between Murray and MacDowell as a clincher for her getting the role. That may be, but I’m afraid she fails to work her magic on me (maybe I’m just resistant to that homespun Southern charm ’y’ all). There’s a string of late ‘80s and early ‘90s movies that leave me confused over quite what the protagonists saw in their leading lady. Particularly since there are clearly better candidates in several of them. In Sex, Lies and Videotape Laura San Giacomo is clearly more appealing, in Green Card there’s Cheers’ Bebe Neuwirth and in Four Weddings and a Funeral foolish fop Hugh fails to fall for Kristin Scott Thomas. So too here, Marita Geraghty’s one-night stand Nancy (well, one night that we saw) is much more winning than Rita.
There’s no moment where I believe Phil is smitten with Rita, and accordingly I’m never convinced when he first repeats her name when he’s coming on to Nancy (I’d hazard that the opening sequence at the TV station, where Phil first lays eyes on Rita, was partly included to unsuccessfully transmit the idea that it’s love at first sight). It’s much more believable when Phil taking the piss out of her bland positivity (“Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady”) or her ridiculous affectation for nineteenth-century French poetry (“Ha-ha. What a waste of time!”). The result is, when Murray is called on to intone “And when you stand in the snow you look like an angel” it sounds out of place and false (although the line itself is atrocious). MacDowell’s presence isn’t a deal breaker, as I don’t see Phil getting together with Rita as the point of the movie (it needs both self-improvement and romance, as it’s a Hollywood movie, but getting the girl would never be regarded as the prize in the spiritual scheme of things; the reward for living a good life is living a good life).