Sunday, February 7, 2010
Since it was actually Groundhog Day just a few days ago, now seems as good a time as any to analyze exactly what it is that makes me -- and everyone else -- love the movie so much.
For the two percent of you who've never seen it, the movie is about an egocentric weather reporter, Phil Collins, played by Bill Murray, who goes to Punxsutawney to do a broadcast on the groundhog's annual prediction, but then gets stuck in the same day over and over. No matter what happens that day, the next morning he wakes up in the same bed and breakfast, and it's once again the day he's supposed to do his show. (Get it? Phil Collins -- Punxsutawney Phil?) After many days of this, he finally becomes nicer, and then, after finally comporting himself perfectly for the entire day, the spell is broken.
After you've seen a movie enough times, it becomes hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role. That is certainly true here, as it's hard to imagine anyone else being as incredibly condescending and mean -- yet funny -- as Murray. At age 42 (the movie was released in 1993) Murray manages to look completely dissolute and world weary, even when spiffed up for his weatherman gig.
Bill Murray's initial frustration at at being stuck in Punxsutawney goes through several stages. (I know, a reviewer is supposed to refer to the characters by their role names, but I find it easier and more evocative to refer to them by the actors' names, since that's how we think of them anyway.) At first he's merely extra rude to everyone he encounters. Then Murray tries to commit suicide, one time after kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil itself. But he still wakes up the next morning in the same place. Next he cynically uses his advance knowledge of how the day unfolds to seduce a pretty girl and steal money from a Brinks truck.
Murray tries to seduce Andie Macdowell (who plays his producer) the same way -- by using the information he gleans over progressive Groundhog Days. He gets closer and closer, but doesn't quite succeed. At one point he asks her what she majored in. When she tells him French literature, he laughs and replies, "What a waste of time!" She looks put out. The next day when they have the same conversation, he responds by quoting French verse. She looks enraptured.
In the process of tricking MacDowell to fall in love with him, Murray finds himself falling in love with her.
Eventually Murray just turns do-gooder. That this transition is not completely explained doesn't hurt the movie. It's almost as if he simply gets tired of being cynical and realizes that being good is more rewarding. (Being cynical, while perhaps more realistic, is ultimately no fun.)
The movie is funny and sweet and says a lot about human nature. The locals are portrayed as the kind of real people you might actually meet in Middle America, if perhaps a little more cornball. Their innate goodwill sets Bill Murray's world weary sarcasm off perfectly. There are no villains in the movie save Murray himself, but he also turns out to be the movie's hero.
In a weird sort of way, the movie works mostly for the same reason that a good buddy movie does: because of the contrast between the two personalities. Only in this case the two personalities reside within one individual. The character arc -- that phrase so beloved of screenwriting teachers -- goes further here than in any other movie I can think of. (It goes in the right direction, too: imagine if Murray had progressed from being nice to being rotten. The movie would probably not be as iconic as it is now.)
The movie doesn't try to make a straw man out of the nasty version of Murray -- it actually gives him the best lines, usually the treatment reserved for the hero. This keeps us from feeling as if we're being preached to. The heroic Murray, at the end, is much less funny. (Once again proving that real funniness must be at least somewhat cruel.) But the heroic Murray is the one we've been rooting for.
This is the ultimate Golden Rule movie, and also the ultimate Carpe Diem movie, made palatable by its masterfully comedic structure.