Groundhog Day

Irascible, anti-social weather reporter Phil Connors (Bill Murray) heads to the small town of Punxutawney, Philadelphia with his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and new producer Rita (Andi MacDowell) to cover the Groundhog Day festival ceremony, wherein a prominently dentured rodent allegedly predicts the weather. It’s an annual occurrence Phil despises, and one from which he cannot wait to get away, but unfortunately for him he’s stuck there, reliving the same day over and over again, potentially forever more.

I was recently a guest on my friend Bubbawheat’s new podcast, It’s Time To Rewind, in which he is covering time loop films, one loop at a time. He is wisely starting with Groundhog Day, objectively the best time loop film out there, and the episode I was a guest on can be found here, where we discussed Phil’s 35th (and possibly final?) loop. It’s a great show, and if you’re a fan of the film then you should definitely check it out. If you’re not a fan of the film, honestly I don’t know what to tell you other than maybe you’re not a fan of fun in general? Because this is a wonderful, poignant, hilarious, near perfect piece of art that I’ve watched countless times and am still finding new aspects to adore.

It’s unfair to say Bill Murray is perfectly cast as Phil, because there’s so much improvisation and, it feels, very little acting actually going on in his performance. Phil is a character built around Murray’s pre-existing core, perhaps delving deeper into the darker depths when required. Initially he is a hard man to root for (not just because of his dismissal at people who enjoy black pudding, or blood sausage as he refers to it). He not only dislikes but actively hates everyone he encounters, often to their face, belittles those less intelligent than himself, and is very much blinkered to the world around him, instead focussing entirely on his own goal of getting the heck out of town and landing a promotion elsewhere. Even after the time loop realisation, he is quick to descend into how he can use the situation to his own advantage, performing acts he’d (hopefully) never try to undertake in a more linear world such as conning women into sleeping with him, punching people and causing general chaos in a world with no consequences and therefore no responsibilities. It’s testament to Murray’s performance, then, that as Phil softens and improves into an overall better person, the links to that sardonic, bitter Phil from the earlier scenes are still visible; he always feels like the same man.

Elsewhere the cast is resplendent with character actors and folk who feel right at home in small town America. Stephen Tobolowsky is the obvious standout as Phil’s estranged schoolmate Ned Ryerson, one of the most lovably annoying characters ever put on screen. The scene where he runs away from Phil is delightful. Chris Elliott has long been an actor who excels in depravity – see also Scary Movie 2, How I Met Your Mother, Schitt’s Creek and, literally, everything else Chris Elliott has ever done. I’m not sure he’s ever played a stand-up guy, but when he does his schtick so well, why would he? Andie Macdowell is an actor I’ve never overly gelled with, be it in this, Four Weddings and a Funeral or St. Elmo’s Fire, but upon closer inspection her performance here is good, she just has less to work with as she’s the new character to Phil, she has fewer quirks and, by the nature of the story, her character cannot develop further than that single day of life. I also must briefly mention that Michael Shannon crops up in one of his earliest roles. He doesn’t necessarily stand out, no-one saw this and thought “That guy is gonna do amazing things one day and will be the first actor to win five consecutive best actor Oscars”, but I love him and everything he does, so it’s worthy of mentioning here.

The main draw for me though is Danny Rubin’s script. Once you know the premise, the overall story isn’t exactly revolutionary within the world of the film – Phil’s character arc is pretty easy to draw once you know his starting point and relationship to the other characters in town in general – but the story is peppered with so many other diversions and interesting explorations of the world, plus so many quotable lines of dialogue! “Too early for flapjacks?” is a personal favourite and one that has led to a years-long debate with my fellow French Toast Sunday members as to what flapjacks actually are and when it’s acceptable to eat pancakes (flapjacks are oat and syrup-based cakes often also made with dried fruit, chocolate and whatever else you like; pancakes can be eaten one day a year, Pancake Day, the day before lent. They are a dessert, not a breakfast). I also believe “What if there is no tomorrow, there wasn’t one today?!” to be just a genius line of dialogue. And the image of the groundhog, having been hog-napped by Phil, driving a truck, is also such a simple idea, but that visual has been stuck with me for such a long time and always brings a smile to my face.

To me, Groundhog Day is perfect. I’ve seen it so many times, but the repetitive nature of the film makes it seem like so many more, so perhaps my opinion is biased, but I’m pretty sure I’ve loved it since day one. There’s nothing I want to change, I don’t want a sequel, I fully approve of the reason behind Phil’s loop never being fully revealed, and I’m happy that it’s inspired a lot of other time loop films, but I think this will always be the best.

Choose Film 10/10

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant seem to be a match made in heaven. So far they’ve collaborated on three features (Notting Hill and Love, Actually being the other, equally enjoyable films that, for some reason or another, aren’t on the List), and Grant’s lovably foppish dithering perfectly fits into Curtis’ skill with a subtle put-down or throwaway comment.
Here, Grant plays Charles, terminally lost amidst a sea of acquaintances tying the knot, swinging from one wedding to the next seemingly every weekend. Perpetually late, lost and underprepared, Charles is a creation that, if you don’t know someone just like him, it’s probably you in your circle of friends. And it is this circle, just like in Notting Hill, that makes the film what it is. The supporting characters in any film have the potential to be more layered and interesting than the audience ciphers required as the leads. If need be they can even be people you don’t overly like or agree with, but fortunately here they’re a wonderful bunch, from Kristin Scott Thomas’ heartbreakingly brittle Fiona, John Hannah’s dependable Matthew, Simon Callow’s enigmatic, irascible Gareth and of course James Fleet’s hopelessly wealthy Tom, who trumps Charles for the worst best man come wedding number 3 (sample speech quote: “When Bernard told me he was getting engaged to Lydia, I congratulated him because all his other girlfriends were such complete dogs. Although may I say how delighted we are to have so many of them here today”).
Often hilarious and at times genuinely touching, not the least in Matthew’s moving elegy at the titular funeral, the script is also so much swearier than you remember (“fuck fuckety-fuck”), and deals with all the problems one might encounter at a wedding – drunken bride, boorish guests, horrendous dresses, improbable hats and inappropriate songs (I Will Survive, at a wedding?) as well as the more unusual scenarios, like being sat at a table full of your former partners, or being trapped in the room the happy couple are consummating their vows in.
The only problems occur are the horrendously cliché rain-soaked finale (“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed”) and the casting of Andie MacDowell as Charles’ American dream girl, who is only actually desirable the less he gets to know her in my opinion.
Choose film 7/10

sex, lies and videotape

The first spoken word in this film is “garbage”. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I don’t quite get the big deal of this piece. Centring around four main characters, Andie Macdowell’s prudent homemaker Ann, her promiscuous sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), Ann’s lawyer husband John (Peter Gallagher) who is sleeping with both of them, and his old college friend Graham (James Spader), this plays out slowly and plainly, with plot points signposted miles in advance. Graham hasn’t seen John for 9 years, but has moved back into town and needs somewhere to stay temporarily, so crashes at theirs. He seems a little off, a little antisocial and distanced from the world, and when Ann goes to visit him in his new apartment, she discovers he has a ‘personal project’ that involves him videotaping women discussing their sexual experiences, and occasionally masturbating. It seems the only way the impotent Graham can become aroused is via a camera, hence this rather literal stockpiled wank bank. The film shows how powerful a camera can be, with the subjects being more willing to open up when staring into a lens than someone else’s face, and Spader’s performance is riveting and genuinely unsettling at times, but watching Macdowell trying to act is painful, and not enough unexpected occurs.

Choose life 5/10