In 'Groundhog Day,' what goes around . . . keeps going around

February 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In "Groundhog Day," tomorrow is not another day.

The film is like one of Aesop's fables genetically recombined with "The Twilight Zone": it's a moral tale of a slicker who finds redemption in a small town where he's trapped for almost a full year, from Feb. 2, 1993, until Feb. 2, 1993: a full year, that is, of Feb. 2, 1993s.

The movie is expertly calculated to derive maximum comic energy from Bill Murray's great, deadpan mug and his drop-dead I'm-not-impressed line readings. It exposes him over and over to spectacles he's obviously too cool for, and it enjoys his rejoinders even while causing us to wonder about his heart.

The concept is as ingenious as it is clever: Murray, a debauched and corrupt weatherman at a Pittsburgh television station, is dispatched, as is custom, to the rube's festival held on the second day of the second month at the phony-fabulous town of Punxsutawney, Pa. It's a story that, having done it before, he's come to loathe, for it requires that he mix with actual people in a town bereft of the sorts of pleasures he expects from life and filled with horrors: glad-handing insurance salesmen, creepy diner waitresses, drunken truck drivers, an assertive town commission that tries to manipulate the event for maximum publicity, plus (and possibly worst of all), his own hated colleagues, a smart-aleck cameraman and a remote and unimpressable producer (Chris Elliott and Andie MacDowell respectively).

But, media pro that he is, he gets through it, although a freak snowstorm forces him to spend the night (he'd been in a rush to get back to the city); but when he wakes up in the morning -- it's the same day it has already been. He can't start thinking about tomorrow, for there is no tomorrow. There's only today. One of the movie's better decisions is not to bother to explain this basically unexplainable situation; it's too busy having fun.

A good part of the comedy shares the same source as the famous Calypso-dinner-party sequence in "Beetlejuice," where self-declared cool people are forced to perform the coarsest of square rituals to their horror. Murray just believes he's too good for the grinding humiliations of small-town Rotary Club culture, but he cannot escape its press. Soon, however, he adapts. Locked forever in place like a prehistoric mosquito sealed in amber does have its advantages. The cynic in Murray is quick to seize on them; for example, he's able to fast-forward through a number of quick and easy seductions, because every time he says exactly the wrong thing, he can come back to it the next day ("next" and "day" being provisional terms) and say exactly the right thing. Life is an interactive video tape. When a woman tells him she studied French poetry in college, he derisively guffaws "What a waste!"; that's a bad move, but the next day, he's able to quote Rimbaud to her.

When sex loses its appeal, he turns to death, engineering a number of highly amusing self-terminations, all of which yield him not the afterlife but the presentlife -- Punxsutawney, Pa., Feb. 2, 1993.

Of course the true subtext of the movie isn't comedy but salvation: As he's forced to finally come to terms with his environment and as he learns more and more and more of the history of a very small place, it's as though a veil has been lifted. In the best of populist Capra-corny breakthroughs, he realizes that he's OK, they're OK. Once he's able to acknowledge their humanity, his own humanity comes tumbling after. I think the deepest source of the film isn't Frank Capra at all, but Dickens: Like Ebenezer Scrooge, he finally awakes on Christmas morning to find a path to happiness through generosity of spirit. Of course it isn't Christmas day. It's the day after Groundhog Day.

& God bless us everyone.

"Groundhog Day"

Starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

Directed by Harold Ramis.

Rated PG-13.

***

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