By Lynn Venhaus
Maybe it was the wake-up call – the clock radio hitting 6 a.m. and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” blaring bedside at the quaint B &B. And then again the next day, at precisely the same time.
From the get-go, you knew “Groundhog Day” wasn’t your usual comedy when it premiered on Feb. 12, 1993. It could have been a one-joke movie, but in the hands of an appealing cast led by Bill Murray, director Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin, “Groundhog Day” turned out to be fresh, original and enormously entertaining.
Today it stands as not only one of the best comedies of the 1990s, but a romantic comedy for the ages.
The movie’s ingenious hook was taking a classic American winter custom and turning it into a personal hell, then salvation, for an arrogant Pittsburgh TV weatherman. In a perverse twist of fate, Phil Connors must repeat the same day over and over and over again. It happens when he’s covering the most famous groundhog in the U.S., Punxsutawney Phil, in a nearby Pennsylvania hamlet, to witness the annual ritual of whether or not he saw his shadow on Feb. 2. It’s the fourth year for the assignment, and he’s beyond amused, with frustration seething from every pore. Oh, the irony — he gets stuck in the small town when a blizzard that he forecast as going elsewhere heads his way.
Murray was a natural for the role of the condescending and vain weather guy, with his deadpan delivery style well-suited for such lines as “I am a god, not THE God.”
By the early 1990s, Murray was working infrequently, and his previous films, “What About Bob?” in 1991, “Ghostbusters II” in 1989 and ‘Scrooged” in 1988 had received mixed reviews. His ’80s glory days of ‘Stripes,” “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters” and “Tootsie” were behind him, but he proved he could still carry a movie and was a comic force to be reckoned with, but also charming in a romantic part, too.
When he’s testing his immortal powers, that’s when he really draws laughs, but he becomes downright cuddly when he decides to use his powers for good, not evil. Murray’s expert comic timing makes everyone around him better, too.
Andie MacDowell is radiant as the sweet producer wooed by the weatherman and wacky Chris Elliott is just plain funny as the cameraman Larry.
And then of course there’s Stephen Tobolowsky, a character actor so memorable as Ned Ryerson. Who can forget Ned’s nerdy ways? His talent show act in high school? Bing!
“Groundhog Day” has aged well. It’s a movie whose elements will make you smile whenever you think of them, and will still make you laugh after repeat viewings.
For example, here is the snappy repartee between the morning radio show personalities:
First D.J.: Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.
Second D.J.: It’s coooold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?
First D.J.: Not hardly. And you know, you can expect hazardous travel later today with that, you know, that, uh, that blizzard thing.
Second D.J.: [mockingly] That blizzard – thing. That blizzard – thing. Oh, well, here’s the report! The National Weather Service is calling for a “big blizzard thing!”
First D.J.: Yessss, they are. But you know, there’s another reason why today is especially exciting.
Second D.J.: Especially cold!
First D.J.: Especially cold, okay, but the big question on everybody’s lips…
Second D.J.: – On their chapped lips…
First D.J.: – On their chapped lips, right: Do ya think Phil is gonna come out and see his shadow?
Second D.J.: Punxsutawney Phil!
First D.J.: That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers – it’s
First D.J.: GROUNDHOG DAY!
Second D.J.: GROUNDHOG DAY!
So come along to Gobbler’s Knob! Watch “Groundhog Day” and you won’t need a chill pill!
The movie’s authentic winter look got me to thinking about other movies set in massive amounts of snow. Here are nine others that make the most of their frosty settings, if you want to go that direction.
Doctor Zhivago (1965) – If you have never seen this David Lean epic love story set during the Russian Revolution, put it at the top of your list — and clear some time, for it’s 3 hours and 17 minutes. Omar Sharif plays the hunky lead opposite gorgeous Julie Christie while Geraldine Chaplin is his dumped wife. Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness and a cast of thousands. “Somewhere My Love” is the haunting “Lara’s Theme” of the Maurice Jarre soundtrack.
Fargo (1996) – The frozen landscape of the twin cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, is really the setting of the Coen Brothers’ finest film, and it becomes as memorable a character as William H. Macy’s hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard and Oscar winner Frances McDormand’s very pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson. The murder-for-hire scheme is dark, as far as black comedies go, but what a terrific twisted plot, and both Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare play two of life’s biggest losers on the wrong side of the law. You feel Jerry’s pain as he tries to scrape ice off his car when his plans begin to unravel.
Miracle (2004) – Every four years, February means Olympic stars are born. And who can forget the 1980 USA Hockey Team’s quest for the gold? Even if you already know the story, “Miracle” is one terrific sports movie. Kurt Russell gives one of his best performances ever as Coach Herb Brooks, and the backstory of how they assembled this team is compelling human drama. And these players are kids who spent their childhoods skating on frozen ponds, so of course there’s plenty of snow and ice to qualify this movie as a winter wonder.
A Simple Plan (1998) – Director Sam Raimi’s excellent adaptation of Scott Smith’s novel features a wintry Minnesota backdrop for a hot potato story. A never-better Bill Paxton plays Hank, who along with his ‘slow’ brother Jacob (Oscar nominee Billy Bob Thornton in a heart-breaking performance) and friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) discovers $4 million in a plane wreck. They decide to keep quiet and divvy up the money — which they reckon is from a drug deal — but naturally greed takes over, and very bad things start happening. It’s very Shakespearean in a relatable small-town way.
Cliffhanger (1993) – Sylvester Stallone does what he does best in this taut thriller set in the Italian Alps — superbly playing an action hero with some serious dilemmas. Director Renny Harlin’s visual style is dazzling here, and the adventure has a sense of urgency that keeps you on the edge of your seat. John Lithgow is notable as the villain, one of his better roles.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) – Robert Redford is a mountain man who learns new ways to survive in the wilderness, circa 1830. Sydney Pollack directed this picture-postcard of a movie filmed in Utah. Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton, is memorable as a trapper who teaches Jeremiah a thing or two.
Alive (1993) – If you think the plane crash on “Lost” was something else, you haven’t seen this amazing recreation of the horrific real-life accident stranding Uruguayan rugby players for 10 weeks in the remote Andes Mountains in 1972. Perhaps you recall what they had to do to survive. The movie, directed by Frank Marshall and written by John Patrick Shanley, focuses on the human drama. The cast features young stars Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, Vincent Spano and in a small role, Josh Lucas.
Ice Age (2003) – OK, it’s animated, but it’s a clever and well-done family movie, featuring excellent voice work from comic actors as a motley crew trekking across the frozen tundras. Ray Romano is Manfred the Mammoth while John Leguizamo is Sid the Sloth and Denis Leary Diego the Sabertooth Tiger. It’s a fun prehistoric romp.
The Gold Rush (1925) – Charlie Chaplin is a prospector seeking gold in Alaska. Comic gems abound in this silent classic, most notable for eating the shoe.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.