Today marks the annual Groundhog Day celebration in North America – but let’s be honest: for most of us, it’s the day we celebrate 1993 classic Groundhog Day. Directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, Groundhog Day draws on a simple yet effective premise – prickly TV weatherman Phil Connors finds himself endlessly relieving the same day – to deliver the greatest high concept comedy of all time.
A clever script that sticks to its own rules
A big part of what makes Groundhog Day so great is the way Ramis and co-screenwriter Danny Rubin build the story around a strong, clear idea that always sticks to its own simple rules. Unlike almost every other time travel-related movie out there (comedy or otherwise), Groundhog Day sets up the mechanics underpinning Phil’s temporal predicament early on and then follows them faithfully all the way through.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how clever this script is. Potential loopholes in these mechanics are raised and addressed as soon as the audience can think of them, yet Ramis and Rubin never kill the pacing (or fun) by getting bogged down in the semantics.
It’s an incredible feat of writing, especially once the movie starts throwing out ideas like the nature of God’s omnipotence for discussion, too! Indeed, Groundhog Day is ripe with existentialist and religious overtones if you choose to tap into them, or it can just as easily be enjoyed as a breezy romantic romp.
Wonderful chemistry between two terrific leads
Of course, a sharp script is nothing without a strong cast, and fortunately, Groundhog Day boasts a strong ensemble – and perfect leads in Murray and McDowell. The pair play well off each other and share a wonderful onscreen chemistry. Because of this, once Phil sets his sights on winning Rita’s heart (and not just getting in her pants), we’re 100% behind him – we want to see these two unlikely lovebirds get together!
Chemistry aside, a lot of this is down to Murray’s performance. As the person most responsible for bringing the funny, he more than delivers. What’s more, his measured performs sets the tone of the film; somehow, Murray manages to portray Phil’s journey from unrestrained hedonism to suicidal depression (and back again) with the exact balance of humour and heft so that the more emotional moments land without derailing the film’s comedy aspects.
A heart-warming (and breaking), funny flick
And make no mistake: this is a film that pulses with real emotion. Yes, it’s a comedy based around a zany idea, but it also breaks and warms your heart just as much as it tickles your funny bone. From Phil’s vain attempts to save the life of an elderly homeless man, to the ice sculpture he carves to impress Rita, Groundhog Day will leave a lump in your throat when you least expect it. There’s an earnestness to these scenes (and Murray’s performance) that makes them work despite Groundhog Day‘s gags, and because of this, we’re fully invest in the emotion behind Phil’s character arc, too.
See, unlike other time travel comedies (looking at you, About Time) Phil doesn’t win Rita over by tricking her into loving him, or even by self-consciously trying to become her ideal man. He does it by gradually evolving into the kind of genuinely caring and selfless person Rita would naturally fall for.
Phil doesn’t transform into an entirely different person, either; he still retains vestiges of his old self, like his acerbic wit (although his tongue is considerably less sharp). He’s simply become a much better version of who he was before. In this way, Groundhog Day reminds us that, like Phil, we all have the potential to become our own better selves, just as we share his power to break free of the monotony inherent in an unfilled (if not quite unending) life.
Because this emotional climax feels earned – and we can identify his redemption with our own potential for improvement – when Groundhog Day‘s credits roll, we’re filled with inspiring sense of catharsis and renewed agency.
And that, more than anything else, is why Groundhog Day is the greatest high concept comedy of all time.