Friday, December 12, 2014

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is a rare example of a comedy that has such an incredible premise, an unbelievable setup, and an implausible ending, that to believe or take seriously its 90-odd minute span would be asking too much. And yet, by a miracle, it works. It works so well that we fail, at times, to understand what lies beneath its gentle, relaxed exterior, or the wider implications of its plot.

Here, finally, is one of the 90s’ most edifying, sumptuous comedies, one that asks very little of us, yet at the same time without insulting our intelligence as the audience. Looking back, it seems odd that it wasn’t a hit at the box-office in its day. Today, however, it is regarded rightly as among the genre’s best and most intelligent – it even made it to Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” list.

A movie with as incredible a plot-line as in this one usually needs two things – it must be well directed, and it must be well acted. Fortunately for Harold Ramis (who directed it), Groundhog Day has both a well-written script, and an intelligent cast. The movie tracks down the adventures (or, rather, misadventures) of an egocentric news anchor (Bill Murray), who, together with his long-suffering cameraman and co-anchor (the latter played by Andie MacDowell), arrives in a small town in Pennsylvania where an unusual tradition is being played out.

This is Groundhog Day, when the whole town gathers around to see whether a groundhog, nicknamed “Phil”, comes out of its burrow forecasting the weather: legend has it that if it sees its own shadow, it will retreat, and this indicates that winter will be there for quite some time. Needless to say, this is what Phil does, to the town’s dismay. Predictably enough, the weather worsens, the newsmen are forced to stay at a hotel in town, there is no hot water in it comfortable enough for them, and Bill Murray is just as egocentric and self-centred as he always has been.

Until next morning.

Or am I mistaken here? Is there ever a “next morning” in this movie? I have read somewhere that Bill Murray lives a thousand-odd years without aging one bit. Every morning he wakes up, it’s all the same – Sonny and Cher are singing the same part from “I’ve Got You Babe” on the radio, Murray meets an obnoxious college friend on his way out of the hotel, has to host the same event at the park over and over again, and, in the process, still retains his smug, complacent calm.

I leave the rest for you to figure out, but I know one thing – you may be able to eat all you want, and commit all the things you wouldn’t have even dreamt of doing on any other day, but as sure as the sun rises in the morning, living the exact same day again and again can be, especially if the girl you started having a relationship with wakes up the “next” morning without knowing anything of what happened the day before, agonising.

This is a unique comedy, one which no book or play could have quite equaled in its nuanced, spine-tickling style. You will laugh, predictably, at how Bill Murray carries off with MacDowell, at the way he steals the groundhog, thinking it’s the best method to stop all his agony, or the way he predicts little things – like a bystander’s entire history from diaper-days to high-school – spontaneously and with no effort. You will be tickled at how many times MacDowell slaps him, adding even deeper to his calamity by the fact that, when he wakes up the next morning, she will be just as sweet to him as she was the morning before. Good God, can a man endure all this?

Bill Murray certainly can’t, and this is where the second part of the movie figures in. At a certain point, Groundhog Day begins to waver in its mood. Murray as “Phil” the TV weatherman gives a delectable performance, just enough to make us enjoy his character when, at one moment, he is getting slapped by an irate girlfriend, and at the very next, he resolves to change for good.

In the second half or so, he realises why all this is happening to him – that no efforts at committing suicide are going to pay off (he hurls himself off a cliff, walks in front of an oncoming truck, and falls from a clock-tower, with absolutely no success) unless he does what is expected. And what is expected on Groundhog Day of him? I leave that for you to find out. At the end of it all, he emerges a changed man, full of joy, enthusiasm and happiness, with none of the self-centredness that marked him earlier. For this to happen, he must be patient, and must pass several tests.

What these tests are, I again leave for you to find out.