Groundhog Day : Movie Review
5 stars out of 5 (Masterpiece, a once-in-a-lifetime film)
Original Story : Danny Rubin
Director, Co-Writer & Co-Producer : Harold Ramis
Editor : Pembroke J. Herring
Co-Producer : Trevor Albert
Cast : Andie MacDowell , Bill Murray , Chris Elliott
English , 1993
I am terrified of movies which have a message. For moral lessons, I'd rather go back to my Friday afternoon "moral science" classes in school where the audience sleepwalked through the prose, with the rosier promise of the weekend looming. But with some flicks, one doesn't even know when that dreaded word - learning - happens. You're smoothly, gloriously hit and buried under an avalanche of perspective and you emerge with a stunned smile , shaking the epiphanic snow off your hair. Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" is one such weapon of mass resurrection. 'Groundhog Day' is the another prime exemplar.
Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a TV weatherman in his forties, who has unsuspectingly signed up for another trip from Pittsburgh to the small town of Punxsutawney for the snow-rimmed coverage of 'Groundhog Day'. That's the day where a furry plump groundhog is brought out from his lair to "tell" the gathered townsfolk whether there will be an extra six weeks of winter or not. Phil is a jaded, sarcastic prick who can easily tick off any number of folks, and this fact is not lost on his crew which comprises producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). A blizzard later that night sinks their chances of a return to Pittsburgh, and Phil wakes up the next day at 6 AM to realize with amazement that time has rewinded 24 hours to bring him back exactly to the start of another Groundhog Day.
That event happens again and again, countless times, with Phil trying every trick in the book and outside it too, to escape the time-space warp but nothing works.
The idea of rebirth as an implacable cycle to attain moksha (salvational liberation) is not well known to people of certain faiths. In Hinduism however, it is a core concept, widely known amongst the hoi polloi and even bandied about in a casually philosophic sense. Paramahamsa Yogananda tells us that rebirth was established canon in Christianity too, until it lost churchly currency in the first millenium after Christ, as the powers that be decided that multiple lifetimes were too vast and too generous a platform to resolve the issues of sin and redemption. It's somewhat ironic, anyway, that it took a film from a land outside India to embody, or even dis-embody this concept with such beauty, humour and grace.
So many days pass by with Phil gloriously incarcerated in the very same Groundhog Day in the same little town of Punxsutawney, that he becomes aware of every little occurrence and accident that can happen in its confines. His memory of the previous identical day means that he can vary his actions to produce new results, to manipulate anybody, get all the money and sex he wants... He also comes to know exactly at what time a boy can fall from a tree, a man can choke on a steak, a girl can have second thoughts about marriage - and what he can do for all of them. The most poignant part is when he thinks - and the operative concept here is "he thinks" - that he can bail out a poor old vagrant's fate with this prior knowledge.
No Hollywood actress has the sharply chiselled yet voluptuous and softly sublime face that Andie MacDowell has. She cuts the overall figure of a frizzy-haired Goddess. MacDowell channels the potential of that physiognomy to enchanting effect here. The movie knows it and when Phil earns the privilege to repose next to her angelic face, he softly says she's the kindest, most generous, prettiest person he's ever known. MacDowell is never in movie-star get-up here - she wears a slightly frowsy sweater and even worse scarf, neatly conjuring up a unpretentious homely lady. Her soft demeanour belies the fact that she knows exactly what she wants and that she brooks no nonsense. It's fascinating how Phil gets almost lucky with Rita the first time but subsequent attempts on repeat days crash deeper and deeper instead of blooming more resplendently, wryly disclosing how a lady like her is much more amenable to natural gesture, but gets more and more distanced by planned deception. Is winning her the ultimate goal ? Phil soon finds out.
As for Phil Connors himself, Bill Murray wryly nails him high on the cross as the man endlessly forced to resurrect. Murray's face is naturally so world-weary and wanly sardonic that the person taking him out of the womb during his delivery would perhaps have noticed how the facial expression on the baby already mirrored the wry jokes he's crack at age 60 whether lost in translation or not. Murray is subtly terrific in calibrating how his face as a window to his attitude changes. The smart-alec undertow remains, because that's one of essential countours of his soul. What's new is the poise, and a refusal to march ahead like a jerk. Eventually we see a man who couldn't care less, just like how he was at the pic's start. Only this time it is so because there are no unrealized valencies.
At one point Phil demands to see a hospital notes chart even as the nurse tells him plainly what actually happened - a subtle dart perhaps at the litigational folly America has crashed into. But you don't really need to be reflective to enjoy a movie like this; even a child could enjoy it - that's the charm of subtly layered stories.
Phil senses early on that almost no one will understand the mind-bending vortex he's in, so he confides only in very few. Who can blame him ? The cynicism which people are expected to show here, is similar to a fourth-grade kid laughingly ridiculing e = mc ². He's nowhere near the mental plane necessary to understand what's being scoffed at.
But there would have been a rare few even in that small town - not the "chosen few" but the self-cultivated few - who would have understood. These select people might have no knowledge of the previous cycle (Autobiography of a Yogi '46 : 'man cannot bear the knowledge of the actions of his past lives') but would be so sure and so fed-up of their future faculties in the material world, who see their whole physical lives in one instant where it takes others whole lifetimes, that they see no point in going through the charade of worldly obligations again. They do not escape, rather they evolve to the next level which is the spiritual world where the initial journey can be so stunningly lonely that no wonder few have the stoutness of spirit to undertake it. Does Phil become one such saint in this narrative ? Perhaps not - he's evolved a lot before our eyes but he's still got a long way to go. Rubin and Ramis know this, but their calling is to essay that all-important initial upswing, which they do splendidly.
Flawless editing further graces the core material. For Phil Connors it initially seems an insanity-inducing repetition, but for the audience, editor Pembroke J. Herring deftly deflects the mirror effect and splices its refreshing variations to make the scenes seamlessly flow. This is not a movie with long takes, but the coverage of events loses not an iota of depth.
Is "Groundhog Day" a miracle ? It sure is. It proves miracles can happen even in a profoundly cynical world, especially when an idea of genius is realised so beautifully.
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