Workaholic asshole learns to appreciate the small things and slow down. Along the way they find love that was staring at them in the face in the entire time. A million romantic comedies have been built upon this structure, and they typically star a business woman falling for a salt of the earth type.
Well, Groundhog Day takes the typical “Bill Murray character” and gives him the comeuppance that eluded him in prior films. One of the great joys of star personas is in watching them stretch or get subverted in successive films. Murray spent a good part of the 80s developing a jocular asshole, a smug archetype that would machine-gun rattle quips and snark while remaining stagnant. He was happily anarchic and spotlight stealing, and Groundhog Day humbles him.
There’s a pleasing meta-textural element at play here. Actors on set often relive the same instances in a character’s life by repeating lines and filming scenes over and over again to the point of tedium. Pull back from that limited scope of behind the scenes knowledge and look at the structure of the film. It’s all about one character knowingly replaying the same day again until he learns something, or “gets it,” then finally being able to move on.
It’s this strangely limiting scope that enables Murray to provide one of his richest performances. If that feels like a contradiction, then realize that everyone else is basically locked into a repeat performance while Murray is self-aware about the truth. This provides a tremendous amount of wiggle room for him to improvise and throw wrenches into the predetermined system. Think of his movement through the stages of grief, complete with a montage of suicide attempts that are darkly hilarious and oddly touching, before arriving at a desire to better himself. The journey from A to B has a lot of potential for a comedic actor of Murray’s ability to combine sarcasm with deep feeling.
The mundanity of the structure and narrative loop could lend the film towards maudalin or heavy sentimentality, but Groundhog Day is delightfully spiky. That spoonful of arsenic makes the sugar go down in the most delightful way. Yes, the film wants to teach us about the empowerment of bettering ourselves, or nurturing our emotions and intellectual curiosity, but it also wants to wrap it all up in small town bric-a-brac that can easily lend itself towards corny Americana.
Murray and collaborator Harold Ramis manage to navigate the tricky tone and emerge with a perfectly sweet and tart comedy about spiritual development. While Murray’s character is threatened with the same day reoccurring ad infinitum, he eventually sees that if he develops as a person then he’ll manage to grow out of it. Groundhog Day reveals itself in its final moments as one of the most spiritual (if sarcastic) mainstream comedies ever made. Think of it as the jocular cousin of It’s a Wonderful Life.