This isn't merely a subtext of "Groundhog Day." It is the movie's core -- and that, along with a masterfully loony performance by Murray, makes this the best American comedy since "Tootsie."
The movie is like some insane mongrel commingling of "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Twilight Zone" and Luis Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel." Yet it is very much a film by the man who directed Murray (with another burrowing rodent) in "Caddyshack." In other words, it springs straight from the heart of the great tradition of American trash surrealism, which is precisely what makes it so immediately and delightfully accessible, so multilayered and rich without pretension.
In the Bunuel film, sterling aristocrats gather for dinner, but afterward find themselves inexplicably trapped in the dining room, perhaps, they fear, for all eternity. This is something like what happens to Phil, a self-important Pittsburgh weatherman, except that there is nothing sterling about Phil and, if anything, his situation is even more disturbingly peculiar.
Phil is not a liked man, nor is he likable; he is, in short, a case of walking halitosis, which makes him a perfect character for Murray. At the beginning of the picture he, his fetching new producer (Andie MacDowell) and his cameraman (Chris Elliot) make their annual winter pilgrimage to Punxsutawney, Pa., to visit another Phil, the world's most famous weather forecaster, on Groundhog Day.
From the outset, it's a toss-up as to which Phil is more rodentlike. The human Phil looks upon this assignment with the grim anticipation of a man facing the gallows. Certainly, he's far too big a star for this kind of Hicksville human-interest stuff, and his mission seems to be to make everyone he comes into contact with as miserable as he is. All he wants to do is shoot the segment, pack up the gear and get back to Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, a blizzard blocks the roads and downs all the phone lines, so all he can do is head back to his hotel, pull the covers over his head and wait for tomorrow.
Only tomorrow never comes.
At 6 a.m., the radio alarm clock next to his bed awakens him, just as it had the day before, with the same song -- Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You, Babe" -- and the same inane patter. When the hotel clerk, the restaurant hostess, his producer, his cameraman -- everyone -- all speak exactly the same words they had spoken to him the day before, Phil realizes he has a problem. He's stuck in his own private Hades, in Punxsutawney, on Feb. 2.
After a few days of this, most films would run out of invention and grow tiresome. But Ramis, who wrote the script with Danny Rubin, comes up with so many inspired variations on the day's events, and runs Murray through so many different reactions to his ordeal, that we never grow bored.
How could we, with Murray ricocheting from elation to suicidal despair to depressed resignation? Murray is a breed unto himself, a sort of gonzo minimalist. And he's never been funnier as a comedian or more in control as an actor than he is here. It's easily his best movie.
After absorbing the initial shock, Phil becomes giddy with his new-found freedom. His actions, he discovers, have no consequences whatsoever. He can eat anything, drink anything, do anything to anybody, and tomorrow morning at 6, the slate is wiped clean. Being the sleaze that he is, he immediately takes full advantage -- setting up beautiful women today for tomorrow's seduction, robbing banks and performing minor miracles.
Phil's main target, though, is Rita (MacDowell), his producer, a sweet, smart, kindhearted beauty who under normal circumstances would brush him off like so much dandruff. But one night, after trying and trying again, day after day, compiling lists of her favorite poems, her favorite songs, her favorite ice cream flavors, he is able to break down her resistance and almost get her into bed.
This near-miss is the best he can manage, though, and he decides, first, to drive himself off a cliff, then to electrocute himself, step in front of a bus, and, finally, hurl himself off a high building. But it's no go. Come the morn, he's back where he started.
Though bewitchingly pretty, MacDowell has never really found her niche in the movies, but playing this knucklehead brand of modern screwball comedy, she has finally come into her own. Her scenes with Murray have an otherworldly sort of chemistry (with Murray, what else is possible?). And his vermin eccentricity releases a charming flakiness in her; for the first time, her endearing awkwardness really seems to work.
Ramis has always been a better actor and writer than director. But here he shows remarkably keen comic timing, especially in the way he surprises us by cutting, at just the right instant, from one high point to another.
With a script as beautifully complex as this one, Ramis and his cast have half of their work done for them. There is a moral to the tale as well, and it even strikes an uplifting note. But, for once, the audience isn't forced to surrender its intelligence (or its healthy cynicism) to embrace the film's sunny resolution. When Phil has his change of heart, he doesn't suddenly become a stranger. He's the same man, the same jerk, but a far wiser, more likable jerk.
With another star, the movie's message might have been insufferably icky. But Murray's double-jointed ironic charm is our insurance against dishonest optimism. If this caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it's a butterfly with a lot of worm left in him.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company