“Groundhog Day,” an “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the Bill Murray Era

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It wasn’t much of a stretch to say, back in 1993, when I got writer-director Harold Ramis on the phone to talk about “Groundhog Day,” that “Man, you’ve just made your masterpiece.”

He was a modest guy who always seemed happiest “that Bill lets me score.” In the comedies in which they acted opposite each other — “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” — the deadpan Ramis just relished getting a few layups while the star toted the comic load.

And as a writer-director there was nothing in the gently cerebral Canadian’s filmography up to that point that came even close to the warmth, wit, pathos and punch of “Groundhog Day.” “Caddie Shack” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” were coarse and crude and obvious.

“Groundhog Day” is sublime.

“Analyze This” and “Analyze That” were his two greatest post-“Groundhog” successes. And they hold up fine.

But “Groundhog Day” is one for the ages.

Consider its story arc, an angry, self-loathing and cynical TV weatherman (Murray) is condemned to repeat, forever, one grim day doing stand-up segments in quaint, quirky and backward Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

He rolls his eyes for another day with the folks who made a groundhog famous. Phil the jerk weatherman becomes another Punxsutawney Phil, forced to deal with everything and every sort of rube he cannot stand if he ever hopes to break the grim cycle of his life and win the love of a good-hearted producer (Andie MacDowell) who could never enter an inappropriate office romance with the likes of him.

Every day, Phil sets out to change his fate and change this hellish day of awkward encounters, rude rejoinders and blunt rebuffs from the producer whose heart he covets.

But every day ends/begins with Phil awakened by a clock radio striking 6:00 and a dorky morning radio team playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.”

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The repeated days offer near endless variations on Phil’s encounters with a nerdy/annoying old high school classmate (Stephen Tobolowsky), a dying homeless man, fellow hotel guests, the mayor (Brian Doyle Murray) and his own production team (Chris Elliott is the put-upon cameraman).

There’s a Nietzsche novel, “The Gay Science,” about a man forced to live the same day over and over again. But Ramis, who co-wrote the film with Danny Rubin, was going through a deep embrace of Buddhism at the time, and any analysis of the film can start there with an appreciation of the self-improvement/self-awareness teachings that suggest that it can take a soul 10,000 years to achieve enlightenment.

And every step of the way, Buddha Bill hears “I Got You, Babe” differently. It’s a joke, then a resigned taunt, then a gateway to despair invitation to ending it all — and finally, a moment of quiet exultation, triumph over despair and the failed philosophy that was ruining his life.

“Put your little hand in mine, there ain’t no hill of mountain we can’t climb.”

Caustic Phil might need longer than 10,000 years to travel from self-absorbed, heartless creep to “The Catcher in the Rye.” As he gradually embraces his epiphany — he quite literally journeys from ignoring the life, loneliness, anxiety and anguish all around him to empathy, caring and concern.

Not before turning suicidal, of course. He is “Wonderful Life’s” George Bailey meets Holden Caulfield, despairing and wanting to end a wasted life, then making every moment of every day count by serving his fellow man…and woman. Catching a kid as he’s falling out of a tree every day is exactly what the equally cynical Caulfield (of “Catcher”) wants to believe he’s capable of doing — saving the innocent.

I never fail to be touched by Phil’s efforts to alter the fate of an aged, dying homeless man (Les Podewell) — scenes that play like the darkest moments of George Bailey’s darkest night.

Murray was at his box office peak when the film came out. And Andie MacDowell, an unlikely model-turned-star, entered into film history as the object of desire of three great romantic comedies of the ’90s — “Groundhog Day,””Green Card” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks both turned down the lead. The fools.

Hollywood legend has it that Murray was the one who pushed the film in its philosophical direction, being bored with the comedy trap he found himself in. He and Ramis feuded during filming, and didn’t speak for years and years after the movie wrapped, despite their lucrative history together. Murray only visited Ramis shortly before the writer-director died.

But their legacy lives on. Just as a Christmas never passes where I don’t watch and tear up a little over Frank Capra’s masterpiece, every Groundhog Day sends me back to “Groundhog Day.” It’s the one date movie I push on young lovers looking for something to stay in and watch together on Valentine’s Day.

There’s a very young Michael Shannon in a bit part, as Fred, whose having-second-thoughts bride must be charmed — by Phil — into going through with it. And there’s Harold Ramis himself, an inscrutably Buddhist neurologist incapable, in his modest talents, of medically fathoming the profound quest that the unwilling Phil finds himself on.

Back when I first spoke with Ramis about the film, he seemed surprised by how profound some people were finding his light-hearted picture. Buddhists, Hassidic Jews, Christian theologians, psychologists and others tapped into it almost instantly once it opened. But as journalists like me started quizzing him about it, before opening, Ramis was slack-jawed at this marvel he’d made.

“Every day, Jews all over the world read the Torah, the same page on the same day, every year. And the Torah doesn’t change. We do. We’re supposed to change, evolve. Our relationships change, our lives and loves are different and we find new meaning in it.”

And years later? We talked when “Analyze This” (or “That”) came out.

“People seem to be re-watching it” he told me. “Maybe they’re using it to take stock, see where they are now. And I hope, be better people and not make the same mistakes we all make, over and over. It’s not just Phil reliving the same day over and over again, you know.”

 

 

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