Harold Ramis | 1hr 41min
Harold Ramis’ talents clearly lie more in writing than directing, but it is hard to ignore the formal accomplishment here in the theme-and-variation narrative structure of Groundhog Day, which itself has become a template for so many other variations of the same concept. It follows the standard set by It’s a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future in using a time travel/parallel universe conceit to mirror different realities within a single location, and furthermore using that in its struggle with cynicism to eventually reach an optimistic depiction of small-town America. Any misgivings one might have about Groundhog Day’s relative visual blandness are immediately made up for in this economic structure, lean screenplay, and Bill Murray’s career-defining performance.
Ramis wastes little time getting into the meat of the narrative, as it is only 7 minutes in before we hit our first Groundhog Day, and 17 minutes before we get our first variation. Almost everything we see in this introduction has a formal counterpoint later on – “I Got You Babe” playing on the radio, the frustratingly peppy presenters, the landlady checking in on his stay, Ned Ryerson, “Bing!”, the puddle, and the polka song keep turning up with slight divergences, each time being filtered through Phil’s fluctuating state of mind.
Then there are the variations within variations, especially as Phil tries to charm Rita by following the same formula every night, constantly fine-tuning their interactions. This type of formal repetition would usually just make for a cohesive film, but here it becomes mind-numbingly inescapable, actively trapping us with Phil in this milquetoast limbo. Even the groundhog itself aptly shares his name, helplessly and insultingly tying him even further to this one day.
Beyond the remarkable narrative structure, Groundhog Day develops Phil’s character arc through its exploration of solipsism – by definition, “the view or belief that the self is all that can be known to exist”. Phil has always assumed this his life is more significant than everyone else’s, and his newfound immortality seems to prove that is true. The universe singles him out as someone “special” while everyone around him dies at the end of every day, only to be replaced with a new person when the clock strikes 6am.
And yet what he wouldn’t give to escape this mindless repetition and return to normality. While everything around him remains the same, he runs through the full gamut of emotions and mentalities. Confusion, concern, recklessness, manipulation, disappointment, depression, narcissism, self-improvement, selflessness – there is a lot that rests on Bill Murray’s shoulders in bringing authenticity to Phil’s wild, mood-swinging journey, and he carries it all with ease, grounding each development in Phil’s outspoken, self-reliant, but ultimately insecure manner.
Though at first Phil learns the personal details of everyone in this town just for his own entertainment, this eventually leads to the recognition of the flaw in his solipsistic perspective. A single day to him is their entire existence, and at this turning point he realises that his immortality is only relevant in how he can improve their transient times on Earth. The homeless man who dies every day and who Phil keeps trying to save becomes a motif representing the citizens of Punxsutawney, as Phil eventually recognises that there is nothing he can do except comfort these people before they disappear into oblivion, only to be replaced with younger versions of themselves the next day.
With Phil finally bringing his life down to everyone else’s level, balance is restored – he is no longer immortal, and neither does the rest of the world cease to exist at the end of every day. For the first time they are all on equal footing, and Phil’s arc from self-proclaimed god to man is complete. In using its tremendous form in repetition as the basis for such a rich character arc, Groundhog Day just keeps allowing for more surprising revelations on each rewatch, giving it, quite ironically, a “timeless” quality.
Groundhog Day is available to stream on Binge Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.