Never mind blank cheques: restrictions can be the best gift for a filmmaker.
One of Hollywood’s few seamless cult/mainstream mergers, Harold Ramis’ ideas-driven romcom proves the point.
Set in one place over one looping day, it embraces repetition yet does something equally vital: it makes restrictive necessity invention’s mother, conjuring cunning solutions to potentially crushing limitations.
Which is, in a tidy parallel, what its snarky hero has to do.
Holed up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, after reporting on the ‘Groundhog Day’ celebrations, bitter-wind weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes to find himself stuck in his nightmare: a time loop in a snore-town where “déjà vu” is taken to mean posh food.
How he’s to get out and get the girl, Rita (Andie MacDowell), is both the film and Phil’s problem.
Ramis and co-writer Danny Rubin solve it with well-wrought simplicity.
The script took some honing: Rubin’s first draft started with Phil already in the loop, but Ramis advised a simpler opening to introduce caustic Connors and redemptive Rita.
Rubin rejected Ramis’ topical gags and studio requests to explain Phil’s temporal fix, preferring simple, timeless ambiguity to ideas like an ex-lover cursing Connors.
With causes, curses and complications ditched, Groundhog Day turns to consequences with light rigour.
Each essential step towards Phil’s Capra-esque reprieve is plotted, from abuse of the situation (wine, women, pastries) to depression and salvation.
You can read religious/existential/therapeutic subtexts into that arc – many have – but Ramis and Rubin simply, assiduously tell the tale, honouring its integrity while leaving the interpretative window open.
As with meanings, so with mirth: Ramis never misses a chance to spin zingers out of the absurd set-up, but he never labours the laughs either.
The understatement extends to note-perfect casting.
MacDowell was never more convincing and Chris Elliott is a dry delight as her lens-man.
Murray and movie, meanwhile, are a mutual godsend: Groundhog Day rescued his career from calcifying in self-caricature.
His arch-minimalism carries the film, conveying phil’s cynicism, suicidal slump and wry amusement at how things turn out without signs of strain.
Murray has tapped similar worldly-wise and weary veins since, even repeating the shower gags for Lost In Translation, but his restraint is so spot-on that the performance shows no wrinkles.
Neither does the film: 19 years on, its wit, invention and economical precision barely look a day older. Extras – a Ramis commentary and a 24-minute featurette – are DVD holdovers.