It’s tough to overstate the popularity, impact, and influence of the films Bill Murray and Harold Ramis made together, just as it’s difficult to overstate the esteem in which the two men are held. Even before he died, Ramis had ascended to the level of a cuddly comedy Buddha; that Second City’s film school is named after him is just one measure of his influence. Murray, meanwhile, did not even need to die to be anointed a preeminent comic saint, a magical, almost shamanistic figure that overly worshipful fans look to, not just for entertainment, but also for guidance on how to live, how to be, and how to channel the master’s spirit in their own lives.
Not bad for men whose tersely titled first three collaborations, Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Stripes, all managed to be enormously popular and influential despite being so sloppy and haphazardly constructed that they barely qualify as movies. By the time their run of collaborations ended prematurely with 1993’s Groundhog Day, however, their ambition had risen in perfect unison with their singularly complementary talents.
With Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Stripes, Ramis and Murray clearly just wanted to make movies that were funny and entertaining and made a lot of money. They succeeded, of course, because they were to comedy what the partnership of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese was to drama around the same period. Yet these films also flaunted their sloppiness with the brazen defiance of stoned youth.
With 1993’s Groundhog Day, his magnum opus, Ramis set out to make a throwback to the ingratiatingly sentimental, small town- and simple folk-loving screwball comedies of Frank Capra while also commenting incisively on the nature of existence and the eternal struggle to find meaning in a seemingly cruel and arbitrary world. With Murray, he made a movie that reflected not just their genius as entertainers and comic minds but also their journey as spiritual seekers, men whose work regularly addressed the big issues in life. Except for Garfield: The Movie. That was just crap.
Every re-watch of Groundhog Day reveals new layers of complexity. The film soars as a redemption comedy and as a screwball romance. But on a meta level, it’s just as fascinating and textually deep as an allegory for Murray and Ramis’ creative evolution, separately and together, and as a meditation on the nature of performing in general and Murray’s genius for improvisation in particular.
They made a movie that reflected not just their genius as entertainers but also their journey as spiritual seekers.
Where other performers are cozily handcuffed by scripts and dialogue and the imperative to recite words more or less as written on the page, Murray has long experienced something approaching total freedom. He’s generally given free range to improvise to his heart’s content, so the rules do not apply to him the same way that rules don’t apply to Phil Connors, the protagonist of Groundhog Day, once he falls into a time loop that forces him to repeat each day anew, albeit with knowledge and information retained from previous days. For Phil, this freedom is alternately a blessing and a curse — something that elevates him to the level of a God, but also something that sometimes makes him want to die.
Ramis’ masterpiece works as a metaphysical redemption fable in part because its wonderfully fleshed-out protagonist, misanthropic weatherman Phil, begins the film in a legitimately dark place emotionally. Within the context of Murray’s career, Phil is a throwback to the narcissists he specialized in playing on Saturday Night Live, most notably his lounge singer character and his “Weekend Update” show business correspondent. These were men of pure smarm, pretenders for whom all of life was show business.
On camera, Phil makes only the faintest attempt to mask his hatred for his job, his co-workers, his life, and himself. Phil’s body may be temporarily trapped on a Pennsylvania news set, but in his mind he’s focussed on the next job, the next promotion, the next station and city to be used as a springboard for his boundless ambition.
As if to mock his big city aspirations, Phil’s station sends him, his camera-man sidekick Larry (Chris Elliott), and gently daffy new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) to Punxsutawney, PA to witness prognosticating groundhog Punxsutawney Phil work his magic. According to tradition, if Phil (the groundhog) sees his shadow and returns to his hole, the cursed state is doomed to six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, it’s supposed to herald an early spring. It’s the kind of human interest story that local news exists for, and that fills Phil with murderous rage.
Phil is a nasty piece of work. He’s a man in a fearsome hurry to get the hell away from losers like you. He’s an ambitious striver who doesn’t look at people so much as he looks past them in his mad hurry to get to that next notch in the socioeconomic ladder. Accordingly, Phil sees the lovable small town denizens of Punxsutawney as rubes and hicks, even as the film reinforces their fundamental dignity.
Groundhog Day reimagines Punxsutawney as a contemporary version of the sleepy hamlets and simple people that Frank Capra and Preston Sturges celebrated in their classic films of the 1930s and 1940s. Even Needle-Nosed Ned, the insurance agent played by the great Stephen Tobolowsky in the role he will be remembered for, seems like a nice guy. Oh sure, he’s an overly enthusiastic insurance agent (a term I fear may be redundant) so deeply annoying that it’s more than a little cathartic when our hero punches him in the face. But he’s fundamentally harmless — even ingratiating — in his obliviousness.
If Punxsutawney is singularly charming, Phil is singularly immune to its charms. For him, it’s just another way station full of irritating people and annoying obligations, so he is deeply pissed when terrible weather delays their trek out of town. He is even more existentially chagrined when he wakes up what he believes is the next morning to “I Got You Babe” braying on his clock radio, followed by something even more migraine-inducing: a wacky morning radio team repeating the exact same clunky, excruciating banter as the day before.
It’s not just the radio. Phil is horrified to discover that everything is the same as it was before, and that he has somehow fallen into a weird time loop where he is doomed to repeat the same crappy day, seemingly for the rest of eternity. For an ambitious, impatient man like Phil, a narcissist with an inflated sense of his own celebrity and power, this is an existential nightmare he is unable to wake from.
If Punxsutawney is singularly charming, Phil is singularly immune to its charms.
Deep into his surreal adventures, Phil posts up at a bar and asks some unhappy barflies to consider his sad lot in life. What would they do if they “were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” They can’t help but wearily concede that they don’t have to imagine, because that’s their everyday lives.
Faced with this existential crisis, Phil searches for ways to make the most out of each day, knowing that nothing he does will have any effect on anyone other than himself beyond midnight. Being a cynic by nature, this development unleashes the nihilist within.
Overcome with a sense of futility, Phil repeatedly attempts to kill himself through various means. In one suicidal funk, Phil drives on railroad tracks while delivering a monologue about the many things society tells you not to do (driving on railroad tracks chief among them); it plays like a variation on the ironic motivational speeches that have littered Murray’s career, most notably in Stripes and Meatballs, both of which Ramis had a hand in writing.
Phil’s spiritual and emotional evolution does not follow a straight line. He will make progress on his path to becoming a better person, and in the process, perhaps, break the curse he finds himself operating under, only to backslide and find himself, if not right back where he started, then further away from his fuzzy goal than before.
Phil goes through a series of phases that echo our own emotional and psycho-spiritual evolution, including the one we all go through when nothing seems as important as convincing an attractive stranger to have sex with us, using all of the resources at our disposal. Of course, Phil’s unusual predicament gives him an unusual upper hand when it comes to the art of seduction. So Phil sets about aggressively pursuing relevant info about attractive women he wants to sleep with, first in the form of a sexy stranger he singles out as a one-night-stand/fiance, and then with Rita.
I do not particularly like Andie MacDowell as an actress. She has always struck me as soft and bland, the human equivalent of an expensive, sweet-smelling candle. Yet I absolutely adore her here. She delivers a performance that is nothing short of MacDorable. Like Steven Soderbergh in Sex, Lies & Videotape, Ramis saw something in MacDowell that no one else really has: a soft, ingratiating Southern sweetness and romanticism that, in another film, might have come across as corny and maudlin, but feels perfect here.
Rita is a sweetheart, a woman bravely devoid of the emotional armor Phil protects himself with, but she’s not a pushover, and the movie, to its credit, makes Phil work for her love. Over the course of the third act, Phil comes to truly earn it. There’s something inherently unsettling about the power Phil’s unique position gives him within the context of his relationship with Rita. There’s something unseemly about the way Phil’s knowledge of Rita’s past and her ideas about the ideal man give him an advantage he should not possess. The film seems to recognize that, on some level, so Phil takes his hits, most literally in a great, bracing montage of Rita slapping Phil over and over again when he gets a little too fresh.
Groundhog Day is about finding meaning by connecting with the sum of humanity instead of holding yourself apart from everyone in a toxic state of faux superiority. It’s about embracing life and deriving soul-deep satisfaction from helping other people rather than yourself.
But it’s also about how love is not a trick. It’s not about manipulating people into falling into love with you by selectively using information you have surreptitiously acquired about them. No, in its deepest and truest form, love is a gift that, ideally, gives to the person giving it as well as the person receiving it. Love has to be honest, sincere, genuine, and unselfish, or it isn’t really love at all.
Murray is brave enough to risk looking sappy and sentimental, hokey and earnest, for the sake of serving the film.
That, ultimately, is how Phil breaks the curse. He learns to love, truly and deeply, with his whole soul. He does this despite knowing that, by opening himself up and becoming vulnerable, he could also get hurt in ways he cannot imagine. As part of this process, Phil begins to wean himself off the sarcasm, irony, and emotional detachment that have kept him safe but lonely until now.
In the second half of the film, Murray gorgeously executes lovely little monologues about his growing infatuation and intoxication with Rita. In another film — hell, in a different act of this film — these words would be dripping with sarcasm or irony, distance or smarmy calculation. But Murray is brave enough to risk looking sappy and sentimental, hokey and earnest, for the sake of serving the film rather than his own ego. You can see him evolving as an artist and a man and an actor in these moments. He’s letting go of the comic aggression and hip sarcasm of his early work and allowing himself to be a man who is hopelessly in love and whose life and mind are transformed by the experience.
Ramis helped Murray grow up as an actor and an icon. Murray, in turn, helped lend a new depth and substance to Ramis’ work. Ramis presented Murray with the perfect venue for the next step in his evolution, and Murray matched it with a perfect performance in a perfect film.
Groundhog Day is, on some level, about the joy of collaboration and improvisation, of getting out of your comfort zone and engaging with the people and performers around you, because that’s where the joy and love and meaning is, not in the dysfunction and ugliness and selfishness of the toxic ego. So it’s both heartbreaking and a little bit perfect that after making their best movie together, and the best movie either man would ever make (suck it, Royal Tenenbaums!), Harold Ramis and Bill Murray never worked together on a film again.
You can’t top perfection. It’s foolish to try. But that somehow hasn’t kept Groundhog Day: The Musical from becoming a reality; it’s already opened in London’s West End and will be debuting on Broadway in April of this year. I should reserve judgment on it, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve experienced this dynamic before, where something perfect and beloved is adapted for another medium or remade, seemingly for no good reason. Heck, you could even say that I wake up every morning and that exact scenario plays out again. Over and over and over again. Unlike Phil, however, we never seem to learn from our mistakes, and as a result, we may be doomed to repeat them ad infinitum.
Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin