(This movie was requested by Jeff Pike. You know, it’s been about two years since I asked people for requests, and I got enough of them that I’m still working my way through the list … there are at least 30 more to come. So it’s not like I need more requests, although I’m always looking for them. But what happens is, it can take me a couple of years to get to a request, by which time I imagine the requester has forgotten all about it. For the record, Jeff offered up 14 requests on July 3, 2012, of which I have now written about 7.)
Last Sunday, Twitter legend Ellen Barkin tweeted, “’Pompeii’ did not do too well at the box office this wknd...too soon?” It stuck with me, partly because I thought it was funny, and also because it came to mind when I heard about the death of Harold Ramis. People sent out their regrets over the loss of another artist, but my first thought was that maybe now Ernie Hudson could be moved into the picture on the pan-and-scan versions of Ghostbusters, now that Ramis wasn’t around to complain. Too soon, I know.
I thought to honor Ramis by watching one of his movies, and I happen to own an old DVD of Groundhog Day, so that was my choice. Plus, as noted above, it was on my request list. Plus, I’ve only seen a few of his directorial efforts, didn’t like one at all (Analyze This), can barely remember another (Club Paradise) and found a third funny in a “lets watch the best scenes on YouTube” way (Caddyshack). (It occurs to me that I like Ramis best when he is working with Bill Murray, and I thought that before I found out that they had a falling out during the making of Groundhog Day that persisted, as far as we know, to Ramis’ death. I am not privy to any inside information, nor do I know anything about how Murray and/or Ramis works. But Bill Murray is so good so often that I tend to think he has qualities of his own that don’t depend on Ramis.)
My wife told me today that she had never seen Groundhog Day. I always thought she’d seen it and disliked it, but she said no, it’s just that she was never that interested in the basic premise. When I asked her what she thought that premise was, she said a guy gets stuck in a time warp wherein he repeats the same day, over and over. And you know, that’s a fair description of the movie. It just doesn’t go far enough. There is nothing in that description to suggest it’s a romance. You assume it’s a comedy because Bill Murray is the star, but, as my wife said, it reminds her more of episodes of Stargate SG-1. And there is nothing in that description that helps you understand at least a little why Buddhists seem to like the movie.
All of which is to say that there is a lot going on in Groundhog Day, that it is a rare movie that invites not only shared jokes about Ned Ryerson but also philosophical discussions about the meaning of life. And what is even more rare, it is never syrupy sweet or droningly boring. And I don’t mean to disregard the contributions of everyone who worked on the movie, in particular writer Danny Rubin. But what makes the film work is Bill Murray. His comic persona, always untrustworthy, prevents the syrup from showing up. His acting skills, and his ability to reflect inner processes, make the changes he goes through in the movie seem right, not forced.
Not everything works. There’s a car chase that is more John Landis Blues Brothers than is necessary. But those are minor complaints. And the built-in repetition works a trick on the audience: it seems better with each viewing. I am surely not the only person who made the lame joke that I’d seen Groundhog Day a hundred times, because every time I saw it was like watching it tenfold. But it grows on you. When it came out, Roger Ebert gave it a decent review, 3 out of 4 stars. Twelve years later, he included it in his Great Movies series, writing “Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation.” I’m of a similar mind … in the past, I’ve given it 7/10, but I’m bumping that up to 8/10 this time around. It is easily my favorite film directed by Harold Ramis, and ranks with favored Bill Murray films like Rushmore and Lost in Translation. #279 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. For a companion piece, check out the Bill Murray movies I’ve noted above, including Ghostbusters.
(Since I wrote this, Mary Elizabeth Williams offered a strong column on Ramis and Groundhog Day. As she points out, “the film isn’t on multiple film studies syllabi just for its sly one-liners. Nope, it wound up in the United States National Film Registry for its ‘deft, innovative script’ on ‘self-growth, redemption and personal rebirth.’” But it’s her opening that suggests why my own thoughts aren’t in line with the norm: “There is no shortage of great comedies for which Harold Ramis, who died on Monday at age 69, will be remembered. Without his contributions, there’d have been no ‘Animal House,’ no ‘Stripes,’ no ‘Meatballs,’ no ‘Ghostbusters,’ no ‘Caddyshack.’” You see, I don’t think any of those movies are great movies. Which, as needs to be said whenever the topic of comedies comes up, is all about my taste preferences and not the actual quality of the works in question.)