The best thing about Groundhog Day is that it doesn’t explain. It’s a fantasy, right in the middle of reality, and the film never explains how the fantastic situation came about or why it goes away. This is a relief from the avuncular angel of It’s a Wonderful Life or the mad scientist of Back to the Future. The existence of the fantasy, says this film, is itself part of the fantasy.
We are in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where perhaps we have never yearned to be. It is February 2, a recent one, in this town not far from Pittsburgh, during the annual celebration that is the town’s chief claim to fame. People watch a groundhog emerge and decide, based on whether or not it sees its shadow, that winter will continue for six weeks or spring will soon begin.
To report on this nerve-tingling event comes a T.V. team from Pittsburgh, including a weatherman, Bill Murray, and his producer, Andie MacDowell. Murray has covered this story six or seven times before, and he regards these annual pilgrimages as reminders that he is still a minor figure on a minor station. He grouses, struts and frets with as much sour egotism as MacDowell and the cameraman, Chris Elliott, can suffer.
Murray runs the gamut of small-town banalities in the bed-and-breakfast where he stays overnight and on his way to the groundhog celebration. The team shoots its footage and starts home; but they are delayed by a blizzard, which Murray did not predict the day before on his broadcast. They must return to—O dread word—Punxsutawney. Back in the same bed-and-breakfast, the clock-radio wakes him again at 6 a.m. next morning. But it is not next morning; it is February 2 all over again. At first Murray thinks the radio station is just playing yesterday’s tape, but when he looks out the window, he sees people hurrying toward the groundhog celebration again; and, detail by detail, this day repeats the day before. It is the day before, except that he knows it’s not. Neither MacDowell nor Elliott nor anyone else is aware that February 2 is being repeated.
To make a not-too-long story short—it’s just long enough—Murray repeats Groundhog Day dozens of times, synoptically handled as we go along, and he takes advantage of the fact that (a) be knows what’s going to happen and (b) he won’t have to suffer consequences tomorrow for anything he does today because there won’t be any tomorrow. He can gorge fiendishly on sweets without putting on weight. He can use a proposal of marriage with a local young woman merely as a bedding ploy. He can rob an armored truck because he knows exactly the moment in which the cash will be unguarded. (Omitted wrinkles: he could have bet on horses or played the market, except that next day, he would again be back at Square One.)
In the course of time, though time is not exactly the word, he resigns himself to this calendar repetition, and also be begins to learn from it: not didactically but in a gradual perception that self-centeredness is actually less rewarding than generosity. Of course this is just substituting one form of gratification for another, but at least it allows for companionship—with, principally, MacDowell. This change springs him from the mine-nap.
But nothing, in the entrapment or the escape, is the smallest bit mystical. Murray is in a film, and the film was written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, and Ramis directed, and that’s all. This self-containment is pleasant because it snaps its fingers at cosmic powers and it shows that one potential of film is to do what it pleases with actualities. The result of this blitheness about actuality is some quiet charm, both in the story itself and in our relish of humankind’s power over its usual powerlessness, for a couple of hours anyway, just by making a film that snaps its fingers.
Groundhog Day proves another point, more familiar: some actors can rise above their material, others cannot. The two lead actors here cannot, and are lucky in this instance. MacDowell has been hard to take in most films since sex, lies, and videotape, either because the script was poor or she was miscast. Neither is true here, and she gleams—a bit, anyway. Murray, more often than not, is pretty unbearable; but here, playing a man who is unbearable, Murray begins convincingly, amusingly, and gets even more amusing as he metamorphoses.