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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 39 - Groundhog Day (1993)

Groundhog Day (1994; Columbia Pictures)
Director: Harold Ramis
Writers: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell

Comedy is hard to get right and so few writers, directors and actors have been truly successful in the genre because of this challenge.  The 70’s and 80’s were really good to comedy for a couple of reasons.  The rise of popular variety and sketch comedy shows in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as a vibrant and influential independent movie boom that started to take root in the mid-60’s helped to opened the doors to comedy in forms most had not even imagined.  A handful of essential comic writers and directors also came out of this small group of influential individuals, including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Terry Gilliam and a focus of this article: the late Harold Ramis.

Starting later than his high-ranking peers, Ramis began working on the star-making 1970’s television series Second City TV, alongside fellow comic talents like Rick Moranis, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, just to name a few.  These connections, and their associations with performers on the even-more-successful Saturday Night Live (which debuted in 1975), allowed for a period in the 70’s and 80’s of some of the greatest comedies of all time, during which numerous close bonds were formed between actors, producers, writers and directors, many of which remain in-tact to this day.  This melting pot of talents worked with each other consistently over the years in films such as Trading Places, The Great Outdoors, Vacation and Ghostbusters.  Still, those films just scratch the surface of the groundwork that was laid during this ten year comedy boom.

However, by the end of the 80’s, in spite of their influence and success at the start of the decade, comedies had taken more of a sideline to successful thrillers and big-budget action movies, as the high-powered producers struggled with the rising indie talents for control over the box office.  Ultimately, thanks to big-box sequels like Aliens and Lethal Weapon 2, and franchise hitmakers like Batman and Robocop, the little guys that made such an impact just a decade before were starting to dwindle in their ability to stand up against the studio titans.  One common step taken by a number of 80's stars was to embrace the new reality, and start making films that were marketable thanks to star-power, a few of these movies worked, but most of them did not.  

At the same time all of these late-80’s blockbusters were taking over the toy aisles and home video market, a new, younger generation of filmmakers were rising in the ranks in the underground.  They were inspired by that previous generation of independent filmmakers that had seemed forgotten by the masses.  This led to an impasse.  On one side were the “sellouts”, who many fans believed were just conforming, and on the other were rising filmmakers like Spike Lee, who were fighting the conformist filmmaking style and crafting a voice of their own.  This parallel ebbs and flows throughout all mediums in popular culture from time to time.  David versus Goliath, the little guy versus the Man, ect.  Still, by the time this war had started around 1990, a few of the guys who were once embraced as the young, fresh talents had already given into the Hollywood lifestyle and its accompanying ideals of fame-first and the selling of market-ready, prepackaged crap.

Groundhog Day seems to be a rejection of those ideals, but I believe any subjective or objective analysis of the film could produce arguments in either direction.  Is Groundhog Day a cliche-ridden, one-joke Hollywood comedy?  Or, is it an indictment of the cynical style of screenwriting and film production that has led so many careers into the proverbial gutter?  It is certainly an interesting film conceptually, either way.  It is made even more interesting as it was written and directed by Ramis and starred Bill Murray, a close friend of his and frequent collaborator.  These two were both accused by some for becoming “sellouts” by the end of the 80’s, so there is definitely a jab or two at those accusations of their supposed rejection of artistic values in favor of fame in the film.

A bored, tired and arrogant big-city weather man named Phil arrives in Punxsutawney, PA on February, 1, the eve of the day the titular groundhog, named  Punxsutawney Phil, will predict whether Spring has come or if there will be six more weeks of Winter.  Ready to be done with this gig he sees as demeaning, Phil takes his crew, including producer Rita (played by 80’s superstar Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Eliot) and prepares for the trip home.  Only, things do not work out as planned.  Unable to leave due to a blizzard (which Phil had incorrectly predicted will miss the area), the weather team set up in a hotel for a night to wait out the winter storm.  Only…

The movie really starts here, as the film has Phil living the same day over and over again.  The same events happen time and time again and the only thing that changes are our lead’s reactions to each situation.  During the film, Phil is forced to rethink his treatment of others as the long-term effects of several, seemingly innocuous, actions and statements are seen to end in a surprisingly tragic or simply unhappy way.  The film takes a darker turn as it progresses and each repeated scene becomes a way for us to see any possible outcome.  

There is a lot to Groundhog Day from a story standpoint.  Who knows? I may be reading too deep into what is essentially a film that has Bill Murray be himself while everyone else acts out the same scene ad nauseum, but I have always liked this movie for being a comedy that intentionally does what so many films do, repeat the same ideas and fade into the background.  I see Phil’s shifting reactions to these moments as a reflection of many film fans to the ever-present and constantly growing blob of Hollywood’s contempt for its very audience.

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