the better truth

the better truth

Monday, January 14, 2013

Groundhog Day (1993)

A Groundhog Carol

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a paradigm of modern parables. Recreating this story's sense of spiritual awakening would be a serious challenge for any contemporary film producer. Dickens had the advantage of living in a homogenous age. The Church of England was the religion of the land. There were small gestures to outsiders (i.e. the prohibition against Jews in Parliament was lifted in the 1850s) but this could never be called a catholic society. Outsiders were tolerated but excepted to tow the line. America in the 1990s is in the midst of a debate about "outsiders". If the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future were to re-appear on screen in a contemporary American drama they would be haunted by the specter of being tagged  male white puppets spouting oppressive Christian dogma. The apparitions in Dickens' story are shielded from these accusations by being a product of another country in a different age. Most people realize that there was a dearth of nineteen century Englishmen who celebrated Kwanza. Dickens' continued favor with the American public illustrates penance has been granted for his myopic spiritualism. He is seen as a person of his time and place. His story, however, is far more than a advertisement for Christianity. Its cornerstone lies on a universal theme - regaining a lost faith in humanity. Imagine evoking this motif without touching on the touchy subject of religion: A Christmas Carol without Christmas. What holiday would avoid alienating a part of the "gorgeous mosaic"? The answer, that most absurd and culturally impartial of holidays - groundhog day.

Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day. delivers the essence of Dickens' masterpiece with the foremost contemporary requirement for any mass marketed dramatic feature which deals in matters of the spirit - it is 1000% theologically neutral. There are no gods or creeds. The enemies are narcissism and cynicism. Furthermore, in an unlikely departure from Dickens' formula, the love affair is fully realized. In fact this parable masks itself as a light Romantic Comedy. In truth the theme of the film is grave: can a man overcome a lifetime of spiritual nihilism? Bill Murray portrays a snide fast-talking weatherman who has turned contempt into an artform. (It is interesting to note that Steve Martin chose the same profession for the protagonist in LA STORY; another film which focused on a cynic looking for meaning in the modern wasteland. He also finds redemption via a relationship with a woman). Mr. Murray's foil is Andie McDowell, who plays a vivacious beauty assigned as the producer for the "Groundhog Day" segment of the weather forecast. This requires a trip to a Punsaconti PA., home of the famous groundhog "Phil".

This unlikely duo covers the event. Mr. Murray's character displays a modicum of professionalism while Ms. McDowell's tolerates his contumely. They become trapped in a blizzard and are forced to spend another night in "Groundhogville". The weatherman is incensed. He must suffer another day with the hideous local yokels, whom he views with the utmost loathing for creating the "groundhog" festival. Furthermore he misses his regular weather broadcast which is a significant blow in the Machiavellian world of Television News. At this point the film takes a clever turn. Without warning or explanation Mr. Murray wakes up the following morning to discover he is trapped in a seemingly perpetual timeloop which forces him to endlessly re-live "Groundhog Day". The townspeople and his co-workers are oblivious to the situation and repeat their actions as if on cue. Murray's metamorphosis comes to pass as he learns to cope with eternity in Punsaconti.

Mr. Murray initial reaction is shock and anger. He quickly turns to wanton hedonism. He seduces many of the local ladies by carefully noting there likes. dislikes and lifestories. After tiring of them he sets his sights on his producer. Her genuineness shields her from his seemingly uncanny ability to read her thoughts. After relentless days spent in the chase he finally abandons hope and turns on a course of total self-destruction. Since he is automatically rejuvenated, suicide is futile. The realization that he is facing an eternity of unrequited love forces Murray to think of others - certainly a first in this character's realm of experience. He dedicates his life to altruism. By caring for the needs of others, superficially those whom he rejected as being not worthy of a second glance, he ends up winning the heart of his true love. Suddenly, once again without warning or explanation, the time warp breaks and he is free. His first decision is to settle down in Punsaconti with Andie McDowell.

The film is much funnier than the plot indicates. Mr. Murray is a comedian not a thespian . (His attempt at being an actor, the re-make of The Razor's Edge, clearly established his lack of versatility). Mr. Murray is given a wide range of "straightmen" to play against from the sundry townspeople to Ms. McDowell. Despite his limits as a player Mr. Murray is a master of comic timing and all the various encounters are genuinely amusing. Under the spell of Murray the film shies away from any hint of the "twilight zone" eeriness such a plot might engender. This lack of "an edge" becomes counterproductive. There is never any real sense that Mr. Murray is that bad or that he will suffer a horrible fate. His actions are hideous but even at his worst Mr. Murray is unable to escape his affability. This charm has suited him in purely comic supporting roles (e.g. the gardener in Caddyshack, the friend in Tootsie) and in his superhero spoof (e.g. Ghostbusters). Unfortunately it undercuts any belief that the weatherman has been spiritually reborn. Mr. Murray, instead of rising from the depths, seems to linger in the realm of likable cynicism. This might have been tolerable had any of the others characters been developed. Regrettably this film was purely Mr. Murray's show. Ms. McDowell, Chris Elliot and the legion of townspeople were only there to highlight his abilities as a comic. He is funny but this was a story which called for more than jest.  Mr. Murray's ability at being witty on cue, a rare gift, is ill-suited for drawing the audience into the weatherman's long emotional journey. As they walked down that snowy path in Punsaconti I expected him to turn around and give a smirk. I never felt this way about Scrooge when he gave Tiny Tim the turkey but that was another time, another place.            

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