Soapbox: Getting it right, again and again –Why Groundhog Day is the greatest high concept comedy of all time

GroundhogDay_Phil_Rita
We’ve all had mornings like this…

Today marks the annual Groundhog Day celebration in North America, so I’d like to take a look back at director Harold Ramis’ 1993 classic Groundhog Day, arguably the greatest high concept comedy of all time.

Today marks the annual Groundhog Day celebration in North America, so I’d like to take a look back at director Harold Ramis’ 1993 classic Groundhog Day, arguably the greatest high concept comedy of all time.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Seriously though, If you’re trying to tease out what makes Groundhog Day so great, let’s start with the fact that Ramis and co-screenwriter Danny Rubin have built their story around a strong, clear idea that always sticks to its own simple rules.

(A quick note that spoilers abound in what follows, so consider this fair warning!)

Unlike virtually any other time travel-related movie (comedy or otherwise), the story of prickly TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) becoming trapped in an endless loop that sees him forever relieving the same day – Groundhog Day, natch – and his attempts to win the heart of kind-hearted producer Rita (Andie McDowell) introduces its set-up early on and then follows it faithfully all the way through.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how clever this script is. Ideas like the nature of God’s omnipotence are thrown out for discussion, and Groundhog Day is ripe with existentialist and religious overtones if you choose to tap into them.

Of course, a sharp script is nothing without a strong cast, and fortunately each actor is on form in this outing, none more so than Murray and McDowell, who play well off each other and share a wonderful onscreen chemistry.

I often like to point to Groundhog Day as part of a group of films that began Bill Murray’s transition away from a purely comedic actor to someone more comfortable in the “dramedy” arena, and his performance here makes a good case for that.

As the guy most responsible for bringing the funny, he sets the tone of the film as less of a “laugh out loud” affair and more of a “constant chuckles” bit of business.

Crucially, his portrayal of Phil’s descent from unrestrained hedonism down into true suicidal depression (and back again) always manages to keep the tone appropriately light without ever sacrificing the gravity of these darker moments.

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.

Consider the moment where Phil realises the potential benefits of what has come to seem a curse to him, as he continually struggles and fails to keep an elderly homeless man from dying night after night.

Then cast your mind back to when we see him at long last grow into a man worthy of several truly romantic moments with Rita late in the game, including the best use of “woo by ice sculpture” you’ll ever see.

This last bit is actually the core of what makes the film tick (again, sorry): Phil has a proper character arc.

In a relieving turn of events, Phil doesn’t finally 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 a genuinely caring and selfless person she is able to willingly and naturally fall for.

(Contrast this with recent time-travel rom-com, About Time, where the main relationship is created via manipulation, something that is never depicted as even slightly alarming…)

It’s even more noteworthy that Phil doesn’t transform into a whole new person either; he still retains vestages of his old self, such as acerbic sensibility (although his tongue is considerably less sharp).

No, it’s more the case that’s he’s simply become a much better version of who he was before. It’s not a cartoonish jump from nasty bugger to saint, but rather a realistic shift in behaviour.

Because of this, Groundhog Day reminds us all 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 life.

That we don’t also possess a seemingly endless number of days to do so thus stands as a stark reminder to start changing sooner rather than later.

Ultimately, it’s this thematic undercurrent that allows the film’s upbeat ending – where the time loop is finally broken – to ring true.

Because the climax feels earned on Phil’s part, and because on some level we identify his redemption with our own potential for improvement, the inspiring sense of catharsis present as the credits roll is one shared between fictional character and flesh-and-blood audience.

And that’s why Groundhog Day is the greatest high concept comedy of all time.

That’s it from me – now it’s your turn! Agree? Disagree?

Let me know what your thoughts on Groundhog Day, high concept comedies or anything else in-between in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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Soapbox: Getting it right, again and again –Why Groundhog Day is the greatest high concept comedy of all time

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