Groundhog Day

By now, everyone should know that Groundhog Day is the film that more or less ended the working/personal relationship between Bill “The Murricane” Murray and Harold “The Raimphoon” Ramis. Disagreeing on exactly how serious of a movie it should be (Murray wanted a more “philosophical” feel, ostensibly one akin to the type of pictures he’d win acclaim for later in his career; Ramis was determined to keep things light), the two men reportedly stopped speaking once production wrapped and haven’t had much to say to one another since (save a couple of brief exchanges at private events).

Thus ended one of cinema’s greatest comedic partnerships, one going all the way back to 1979’s ridiculous Summer camp comedy Meatballs. Rabid Ghostbusters fans, here is the sword that reduced your long-awaited third installment to nothing more than a forthcoming Xbox game (if it’s just voice work, Murray and Ramis don’t even have to be on the same continent).

What a note to go out on, though. The tension between star and director probably helped Groundhog Day become the hit it was and what it still is to this day: a quirky, mind-bending comedy with the perfect dash of heart and emotion. Even the slightest shift in tone would have thrown everything off.

Murray is excellent as Phil Connors, the snide, perpetually irritated TV weatherman who completely unravels under the pressure of having to relive the same 24-hour period in small town Pennsylvania over and over and over again. Initially, Connors revels in his time warp, going on crime sprees and messing with people’s heads, but the quest for his female producer’s attention eventually wears him down to a depressed, crazy nub.

He just can’t get it right with sweet Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, no matter how many chances his unique situation affords him. Defeated, Connors accepts his fate and something incredible happens: Rita’s sweet nature begins to rubs off on him, and he starts acting like a decent human being. Eventually, he actually becomes one, too.

Ramis paints a cheerfully claustrophobic Punxsutawney with his direction and camera work, the kind of place we might want to visit but would drive us just as nuts if we were trapped there (in case you’re wondering, no, Groundhog Day was not actually shot in the famous Pennsylvania town; Woodstock, Illinois, was the primary location because it boasted that lovely town square). The supporting cast of yokels and townies are equally a joy to watch, including Robin Duke, Ken Hudson Campbell, Bill’s older brother Brian Doyle, and the immortal Stephen Tobolowsky as Murray’s most obnoxious foil, nutty insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (“Am I right, or am I right? Or am I right? Right-right-right-right!”).

I can’t leave out acquired taste Chris Elliot as the snarky camera operator. Elliot almost comes across as a normal member of the human race in Groundhog Day. That in itself is an amazing feat. Watching Elliot here, you almost completely forget about all the strange voices and gross prosthetics he’s utilized throughout the rest of his strange career. Thanks to this performance, I can almost imagine running into this guy in real life and not having to hear about the time he met a tobacco-spitting cupcake on the open seas.

The most fascinating extra on this 15th anniversary edition DVD is a short segment on the groundhog itself entitled “The Study of Groundhogs: A Real Life Look at Marmots”. Yes, there are people who have devoted their lives to studying these meteorological rodents, and they reveal some fascinating facts. Did you know groundhogs rarely know who their fathers are? Seems there are a lot of deadbeat dads in the marmot community. This feature is a real kick, although I was disappointed that none of the scientists offered up a critique of the film or its furry little star. The world is left to wonder how realistic that famous marmot driving sequence is (“A real groundhog would never know to accelerate into a skid like that!”).

Another disappointment is the commentary track, which features only Ramis. The director sounds a little lonely, repeating dialogue bits he finds humorous, adding unnecessary narration, and covering information he already supplied in his one-on-one interview feature. It’s almost like he’s waiting around for his ex-best buddy to show up so the good time can officially begin.

Indeed, Murray’s absence from this DVD’s special features cannot be ignored. One can only imagine the hilarious riffing he could have offered on the commentary. It would also be interesting to hear how the notoriously fussy actor regards Groundhog Day now, as many still argue it’s his crowning acting achievement.

Hopefully, Murray and Ramis will have set aside their differences by the time the 20th anniversary edition rolls around. Then, maybe, we’ll finally get the full story behind all the highs and lows of this entertaining comedy classic.

RATING 8 / 10