Friday, June 05, 2009

475 - Play It Again #19 - Groundhog Day

James Frazier knows how to write about himself in the third-person. He has been writing movie reviews since 2006, posting them to his blog in hopes that he'll attract readers. Since starting the blog he has made a few grand by writing reviews for his university's paper and for the local outfit. He receives a lot of hate mail from children and people that have no business going anywhere near a college campus. He's wrapping up his MA in Creative Writing, though he has the misfortune of graduating in this economy. James loved shooting guns until a box of ammunition started costing as much as a Friday night out. Somehow, he has managed to acrue a lot of friends and has never dated a woman below a 6 out of 10. He's originally from Mississippi, and a complete list of his film scores can be found right here where the words are.

After much consideration, James has selected Harold Ramis' 1993 comedy "Groundhog Day" for its thematic resonance with the feature.

Watching “Groundhog Day” even once is itself an exercise in repetitive viewing. As its protagonist experiences the same day thousands of times, so do we, the details repeating themselves until the picture is intimately familiar. The intellectually curious among us study works of art obsessively, cataloguing aspects and facets, but how many people apply that same interest to not just the world around them, but the individuals who inhabit it?

“Groundhog Day” is one of the most beloved comedies that is discussed largely without regard to how much laughter it generates. It’s certainly funny, but not aggressively so. It’s not one of the quotables, nor does it push any envelope of taste or convention. The great joys of “Groundhog Day” are of the philosophical kind, the sort with which comfort and familiarity are paramount. How many viewers herald this film as genius after the first trip through Phil Connors’ very long Groundhog Day? Few, I’d imagine; the film’s restrained performances, Ramis’ casually masterful repetition of the day, and the gentleness of its spirit serve to undersell its merits. This is perhaps the quintessential film that you have to see more than once to appreciate, which makes it fitting that the premise sees its hero have to actually study life in order to truly cherish it.

I got to know “Groundhog Day” through its countless airings on cable networks such as TBS. The extremely episodic and repetitive nature of the film made it an easy one to slip into at virtually any point to one who knows the premise, which sees its hero endlessly reliving the exact same February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The film’s pleasant demeanor belies its impeccable craftsmanship, and I had probably been watching it periodically for nearly ten years before its genius permeated my consciousness, announcing itself as one of the cinema’s indispensable works even as it had been acting in that capacity for a great deal of time. Here is an impeccable example of why we run films through repeated viewings: we’re not just doing it to further cherish the movies we already know we love, but to realize that we can fall in love with familiar ones.

File Bill Murrary’s turn as misanthropic reporter Phil Connors as one of the great under-rewarded performances in screen history. Not even a Golden Globe nomination for Murray, even as he crafted one of mainstream cinema’s most complex and challenging protagonists. It’s unusual for a hero to be innocent of a single moment of genuine kindness for the first half of a film, but Phil not only gains our sympathy, he earns it. Many characters grow, but his truly changes, the irrepressibly good-natured townsfolk and his love for Rita (Andie MacDowell), his effervescent producer, permeating his spirit until his natural asperity gives way to a profound transformation of the spirit.

Other actors were considered for the role. Chevy Chase? Too bland. Steve Martin? His sarcasm seems to stem from mild irritation rather than pain. Tom Hanks? Too nice, as Ramis said. But Murray imbues Phil with a melancholy that remains visible even as his attitude reaches the zenith of its acridity. The depth of his performance is best understood by a mid-film scene. Phil, immortal and unable to end his suffering, reveals the bizarre details of his imprisonment to Rita, who sits, shocked, as he confesses deep love for her, unveiling his seemingly omnipotent knowledge and tortured yearning for her affection. It’s at this point we come to love Phil, his acerbic attitude revealed as one concealing torment at unrequited love.

There’s a poetry that’s both metaphysical and deeply heartfelt to the film’s second half, which sees Phil move from denial to acceptance of his cyclical fate. The prominent details studied endlessly, he finds ways to enjoy eternal life, such the soothing sounds of a piano or the esoteric art of ice sculpting. But it’s ultimately Phil’s embrace of self-improvement and service to others that makes his existence a rich one, allowing him to finally wake up with the love of his life, smile, and look forward to what comes next with exhilaration and optimism. - James Frazier

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