Close-up of a radio alarm clock. In slow motion the giant numbers fall, like they’re trying to resist but are overwhelmed by the weight of time.
Didn’t we do this yesterday?
How many other films have made such an impact that their titles become assimilated into everyday language? GROUNDHOG DAY attached a name to a feeling of existential dread that it now feels always needed one, so that by now there must be people who understand the phrase without ever having seen the movie. Screenwriter Danny Rubin’s pitch is one of those brilliantly simple ideas that seems amazing no one had thought of before.
Time Machine. A guy is stuck in a time warp that commits him to living the same day over and over again. But each day he can behave differently and the world and people will be different accordingly. (How do you enjoy yourself? How do you get laid? What are the different ways you can spend the same day? Will he become wiser? Sadder? Cynical? Adventurous?)
This is the original idea as scribbled down with dozens of others by Rubin during a brainstorming session. Initially he seems to have pictured the film as having a more downbeat and “indie” sensibility: his (highly recommended) book ‘How To Write Groundhog Day‘ gives a great insight into the protracted tug o’war that begins when a script is optioned by a studio, hooks a Hollywood star and begins a long series of rewrites and re-imaginings. But the joy of GROUNDHOG DAY is in the balance struck by Rubin, director Harold Ramis and leading man Bill Murray to make a film that lands somewhere between Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO (2000) and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), without over-egging it in either direction. Much of this is to do with the greatness of Bill Murray. Murray plays Phil Connors (like the groundhog Phil), a TV weatherman reporting on the annual Groundhog Day festival in the backwater town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania over and over again as he finds himself inexplicably stuck in a time loop, reliving the same 24 hour period. Murray always works best for me when it feels like he’s been mischievously parachuted into a production he doesn’t quite belong in. Admittedly this has its limits (hello GARFIELD: THE MOVIE (2004)) but it’s what makes his turns in the likes of GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) and TOOTSIE (1982) so exciting, whilst I continue to experience a faint sense of indifference when I hear of his casting in another Wes Anderson project. It’s easy to imagine the studio handing GROUNDHOG DAY over to a more traditional, far less cynical leading man, and almost impossible to imagine the finished film being anywhere near as good. It’s notable that in the very first iteration of the time loop, Connors lasts about an hour before he switches from confusion to acting like a bastard: the put-upon victim of a cosmic practical joke who hasn’t seen the funny side.
This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.
Yet consider if you will Ramis’ brilliantly subtle direction. In the hands of another director this could all so easily have spilled over into a zany comic adventure: the opening shots of clouds turned into a title sequence of exploding clocks, for example, or the studio-requested “gypsy curse” explanation for the time loop could have actually been shot and crowbarred into the picture. The final film ends up with a cosy, even old fashioned quality whilst simultaneously experimenting with the cinematic idea of time in a way few films I can think of have ever done (time travel movies in themselves don’t necessarily count, I’m thinking of films like RUN LOLA RUN (1998) or TIMECODE (2000)).
There’s much online debate around exactly how long Connors spends trapped in the time loop, suffice to say a conservative estimate must put it at ten years. This throws up all sorts of interesting question about what it would mean for an ordinary man to age without actually growing old. Whether the change was intentional or not, at some point he must literally start to forget the person he used to be. Though Rubin insists it was not a conscious decision made by the writers, the various stages of Connors’ reaction to his predicament have been compared to the twelve-step program as originally proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous, although some of the steps would have to occur in the wrong order and the one about accepting God inverted completely to “I’m a god. I’m not *the* God… I don’t think.” It’s easy to think of some dark territory this film could explore, and indeed it doesn’t shy away from some of it whilst managing to keep things generally light-hearted, though the scenes of Connors repeatedly failing to save the old homeless man get me every time. Once again this is due to the master stroke of Murray’s casting: a montage of Tom Hanks topping himself in different ways might have been somewhat more difficult to keep broadly comic. Then again, some scenes that at first seem fairly innocent have quite sinister undertones on repeated viewings: I’m always struck by the bloody-mindedness it must take to pull off the invisible bank robbery even though a TV weatherman must have more money in his account than he could possibly spend in a single day in a town like Punxsutawney.
As Connors spends thousands or tens of thousands of iterations in the loop, he becomes the director of his own film. He comes to know the deepest secrets of every person in town, exactly where they’ll be and when, and starts to arrange and manipulate scenes like a Kamikaze Mike Leigh. The one day timeframe also gives the real filmmakers as much freedom as Connors to do whatever they want to, free of the usual narrative constraints. They could have him burn the town to the ground (and maybe, in a Doctor Who “Missing Adventures” style he actually did, we just didn’t see it). It’s a terrific irony that only a film that takes repetition as its central conceit can go anywhere and be anything but predictable. Perhaps the timelessness of GROUNDHOG DAY is down to the fact that never has a film shown us such an infinity of possibilities and let us draw our own conclusions. This could be why it has been seized upon by Christians, Buddhists, yogis, existentialists and 12-steppers. We dig repetition. We dig repetition.