Groundhog Day

(1993) *** 1/2 Pg
103 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Directors: Harold Ramis, Steve Boyum. Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Doyle-Murray.

/content/films/3350/1.jpgA memorable comedy for the ages, Groundhog Day digs deeper than most magic-realist comedies (Big, Liar, Liar) by embarking into territory that's not only moral and metaphysical but philosophical and even spiritual. Director Harold Ramis balances the story's dark implications with his sunny sensibility, while star Bill Murray holds the middle ground as an antisocial misanthrope ("People are morons") who learns that finding his bliss is more satisfying than succumbing to his worst instincts.

Murray plays TV weatherman Phil Conners, who inexplicably falls into a personal time warp requiring him to repeat the same day over and over again. It's not the sort of day Phil would consider a keeper, either: he's in wintry Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania covering (under duress) Groundhog Day. Yes, it's the day that the rodent Punxsutawney Phil emerges for town criers (including Bill's brother Brian Doyle-Murray) to discover when winter will give way to spring. The news isn't good for anyone, and particularly not for Phil, who discovers that seemingly nothing (not even suicide) can free him from a cycle repeating the same 24 hours, unbeknownst to anyone else around him. Adding insult to injury, each cycle begins at 6:00am with Sonny and Cher's rendition of "I Got You Babe."

At first, Phil views everyone around him as an obstacle to his happiness: his peppy producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), wiseacre cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), old acquaintance "Needle-Nose" Ned Reyerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) and local yokels Gus (Rick Ducommun) and Ralph (Rick Overton), to name a few (Oscar nominee Michael Shannon also turns up in a brief role as a townsperson). Murray consults a neurologist (played by Ramis) and entertains the possibility he's a god, since his knowledge gives him a power over life and death. The story becomes increasingly existential. "What if there were no tomorrow?" Phil asks. "We could do whatever we want." It's a thought he finds comforting, and for a while Phil embraces his plight with abandon.

But like most people able to indulge their instincts, Phil becomes bored and begins to long for something more than easy hook-ups, free money, and adoration. He learns jazz piano and romance languages, and entertains the notion that doing good might be more fulfilling than looking out for number one. The choice most important to the unconventional plot worked out by screenwriters Danny Rubin and Ramis is Phil's pursuit of Rita, the most beguiling woman in town and the least likely to stand for Phil's b.s. (the two traits clearly relate to one another). Their multiple courtship iterations (including a passage reminiscent of David Ives' influential theater piece "Sure Thing") include a great metaphor for relationships: a joyful spontaneous moment and a horrifying failure to recapture the moment. By repeating patterns, Phil eventually and gradually gains insight, a notion any psychiatrist would approve.

The luminous MacDowell has never been more appealing, and Murray is at the top of his game, dropping droll ad libs that make him worth every penny he was paid and most likely more. Groundhog Day also proves winning by allowing psychological depth for Murray's loveable jerk persona and telling a story with unpredictable rhythms. Despite the filmmakers' insistence on an original screenplay, debates rage today about the story's provenance. The science fiction story/films 12:01 PM? The 1905 novel The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin? Nietzsche's The Gay Science? No matter: the approach is original enough. Ultimately and unexpectedly, the science-fiction premise of a time loop becomes a carpe diem story with a hero embracing change: "Anything different is good."

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 1/27/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In a Blu-ray 15th Anniversary Special Edition from Sony, Groundhog Day looks its very best. The solid image retains its theatrical appearance: though it doesn't often seem to leap off the screen, there's really nothing to complain about in this clean and accurate transfer possessed of a deep black level and strong detail. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio mix gives lively wraparound support to the music and a clear presentation of the dialogue.

The Blu-ray preserves an audio commentary with director Harold Ramis, an engaging if not entirely frank host who dutifully recounts digestible stories of the film's development and filming while remaining politic about argumentative star Bill Murray.

In "A Different Day: An Interview with Harold Ramis" (9:58, HD), the ever-smiling director explains why Hasidic Jews picketed the film and shares anecdotes about the casting, the production, and the film's meaning.

Making-of featurette "The Weight of Time" (24:44, SD) lacks even a vintage EPK interview with Bill Murray, but it's still a mighty nice look at the making of the film, including some terrific outtakes. Participants include writer Danny Rubin, producer Trevor Albert, Ramis, Andie MacDowell, and Stephen Tobolowsky.

In "The Study of Groundhogs: A Real Life Look at Marmots" (6:24, HD) UCLA associate professor of biology Dan Blumstein and University of Kansas professor of ecology & evolutionary biology Ken Armitage inform us abour groundhogs as we get a guided tour of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

The new disc also includes the Blu-ray exclusive Needle Nose Ned's Picture-in-Picture Track (a pop-up video trivia track), six very welcome "Deleted Scenes" (5:53, SD), and the BD-Live hook-up to exclusive online content.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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