…at least, in my opinion.
(Note: This is not a review. I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie. If you haven’t... well, get on it straight way, unlesss you are currently cramming for your Bar exams, or in rehab, or something like that.)
Some people complain that the whole exercise of naming a greatest film, poem, song or President of America is ridiculous, since comparisons are odious, and apples are different from oranges, and it’s all rather subjective anway. Of course, all those things are true. Nevertheless, the human race will cheerfully go on nominating all-time greatests, compiling top ten lists, and arguing for hours in pubs, dormitories and school yards about the best Beatles album or James Bond. It’s one of the things I love about this wacky species of ours.
So why Groundhog Day?
Because I think Groundhog Day, more so than any other film, captures the wonder and joy of life-- and captures what Patrick Kavanagh called life’s “ordinary plenty”. Citizen Kane is a great film, and Casablanca is a great film, and The Lord of the Rings is a great film, and The Godfather is a great film. But it seems to me that the themes of those films are rather removed from the reality of most ordinary peoples’ lives. Strangely enough, I think a film about a man caught in an unexplained time loop reflects more of universal human experience than any of those classics.
While I’m not a Quentin Tarantino type who boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of almost every movie ever made—- and I have no desire to be-— I’m pretty keen on the cinema and movies. My anoraky “Movies Seen” spreadsheet (which I thoroughly enjoyed compiling, and keep regularly updated) lists 419 films seen in the cinema alone. When I include the films I’ve seen outside the cinema, it’s close to a thousand—- and I only counted the films of which I have some clear memory.
And of all those, Groundhog Day is the clear winner. Nothing else even comes close.
I love pretty much everything about this movie. I love the premise. I love the setting. I love the climate. I love the shop fronts and shop signs. I love the music. I love the overcoats and scarves. I love the décor in the fictional Tip Top Café and Pennyslvania Hotel. I love the back and forth of the radio presenters who wake Phil up every morning. I love the beanie hat that the rather dorky camera-man Larry wears. I love the song ‘The Pennsylvania Polka’. And, of course, I love Ned Ryerson.
I wish life was like Groundhog Day. It’s the kind of world I would like to live in-— and it’s similar enough to the actual world to throw its spell over our reality. The best films, just like the best poems and the best paintings, make us see the real world through more appreciative and wondering eyes, by drawing out one aspect of life and making that aspect sufficiently picturesque and vivid.
Of course, that brings us close to the very theme of the film-— the theme of gratitude and wonder. The very first line, spoken by the (intitially) narcissistic and cynical central character, is “Somebody asked me today, Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be?”. By the end of the film, Phil learns how to answer that question, “Right here”— even though he is stuck in a small town for which he initially had only a city slicker’s contempt.
In one of his earliest, unpublished poems, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day...and with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed two?”. That is pretty much the message of Groundhog Day: that if we could really appreciate one day, like the single day in which Phil is trapped, our minds would be boggled at the insane bounty that God has lavished upon us in giving us so many more days than just one.
Having said that, if I was to be trapped in a single day—- and even that thought is a rather cosy one to me-- I think I would choose a snowy day in a small town like the movie’s Punxsatawney.
One of the reasons Groundhog Day might appeal to religious believers is that it has, in its far-from-heavy way, a somewhat spiritual theme to it. The director Harold Ramis said that various different religious groups “adopted” the film when it first came out, claiming it had a Buddhist or Jewish or Christian message. He himself believed the movie’s theme was more universal, and I agree. There isn’t really anything specifically Christian, still less specifically Catholic, about Groundhog Day.
But I think the movie is pretty Christian-friendly, in many ways. First off, it has a pretty high moral tone. Even the unreformed Phil isn’t the worst kind of jerk; he at least pretends to be fishing in his pockets when he walks past a beggar, he socialises with two small town ne’er-do-wells (and volunteers to drive them when he sees how drunk they are), and his barbs are rather good-humoured even at their worst. When he finally clicks with Rita, their canoodling seems quite chaste.
At one point, before his reform, Phil casually assumes the existence of God when he tells Rita: “Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe he’s not omnipotent, he’s just been around so long he knows everything.” In another scene, he says a short prayer-— and even though he’s only doing it to impress Rita, I like the fact that he thought of it in the first place.
This matter-of-fact acceptance of God’s existence is one of the subtle, background elements of Groundhog Day that I love so much. The whole social and cultural world that the movie evokes is a stable, rather gentle one. It was released in 1993 but it has the atmosphere of an eighties movie; like Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Trading Places. Somehow, in those sort of eighties movies, the more or less stock characters, familiar sources of humour, and focus on everyday life give the impression of a dependable, fairly traditional, slowly-changing world. I don’t think there are any cell phones or computers to be seen in this film. Nor are there any gangsta rappers or metrosexuals.
The movie is a comedy, of course, but it’s not rib-tickingly funny—- and this is actually one of the things I like about it. Laugh-a-minute movies are rarely movies that we want to revisit; and the frenetic pace of the gags doesn’t leave much room for character, atmosphere or theme to develop. I like how the comic exchanges in Groundhog Day are not protracted. At one point, Phil makes fun of a sweater Larry is wearing by saying: “Looking foxy tonight, man! Tell me, is your troupe going to be selling cookies this year?”. Larry’s reponse-- “Ha, ha, ha, that’s so funny Phil!”—is a pretty lame rejoinder that wouldn’t pass muster in a sitcom. But it’s just right for the slow-burning pace of this movie.
There is barely a wrong note in the entire film. The jokes are funny enough for their purpose. The scenes never drag on too long. And, most importantly, the flights of sentimentality are pitch-perfect. There is a rather gormless notion about that sentimentality per se is a flaw. But sentimentality, just like slapstick or shock value or pathos, is only bad when it’s done badly. Admittedly, it’s easier to get wrong, and it does make us cringe when it’s cloying. So I think it’s one of the triumphs of this movie that it features defty-written sentimental dialogue, like these words that Phil speaks to Rita, when she asks him what he knows about her:
“You like boats, but not the ocean. You go to a lake in the summer with your family up in the mountains. There's a long wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing from the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone. You're a sucker for French poetry and rhinestones. You're very generous. You're kind to strangers and children, and when you stand in the snow you look like an angel.”
Perfectly judged. (Even the rhythm of the sentences is masterful.) Ditto this speech Phil makes later on, which is the best moment in the entire film:
“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
Am I really making a case for Groundhog Day being the best movie ever? Maybe not. It seems to me that anyone who loves it already will know its most obvious excellences, and all I can do is point out some other little things I love about it:
I love that it features a romance between a middle-aged man and a woman who is not that much younger—and that this is almost incidental.
I love that poetry features quite prominently in the movie. Phil, even before his reformation, claims that he loves poetry. Poems by Sir Walter Scott and Joyce Kilmer are quoted. A world without poetry is an uncivilized world, and it only takes a little poetry to raise life (or a film) to a higher plateau.
I love that, during the climactic party scene, two elderly ladies are dancing with each other and nobody cares or even remarks on it.
I love that, in the first scene, Phil’s fellow news anchor mentions a report on “sex and violence in the movies”. I miss the times when sex and violence in the movies was a standard moral panic.
I love the jowly, well-groomed, jovial fellow who greets Phil in the bed-and-breakfast—the one that Phil calls “Pork Chops”.
I love that, when Phil steps in an icy puddle, Ned Ryerson says: “Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy.” I like the idea of being so familiar with your home town that you know where the puddles are. (I always think of this when I step past a particular loose paving stone in the university where I work.)
I love that Phil says, “I think people place too much importance on their careers. I think we should all go live on the mountains, at high altitude.” Even if he is just trying to ingratiate himself with Rita, it’s a nice sentiment. I like the idea of a society where sentiments like that are aired and not considered bizarre.
I love the moment when Phil, waiting his moment to swipe a bag of money from a security truck, says: “A gust of wind...a dog barks...cue the truck.” There is something very timeless and peaceful about that moment; the kind of complete absorption in the now that you get while sketching.
I love the black bartender who shakes his head whimsically at Phil’s chat-up lines. I like to think that the bartender is, somehow, the only person other than Phil who knows what’s going on.
I love Larry mentioning that he has covered “the swallows returning to Capistrano six years in a row.”
I love the subdued atmosphere and music in the almost-deserted bowling alley in which Phil, Ralph and Gus sit at the bar and sip their drinks.
I love…well, maybe that’s enough. I just love everything about this movie, and I hope that its magic never wears off for me. And, furthermore, I hope that this post might be found and enjoyed by some other Groundhog Day fanatics out there!