By Bob Clark
Note: In hindsight I should’ve rerun this last weekend and saved the Picnic at Hanging Rock for now, but I expected to be writing up some noirs playing locally that turned out cancelled due to inclimate weather in the Tri-State region. Whatever– Phil was stuck in Punxatawney for well over a week due in no small part to another blizzard, to say nothing of perfect storms in time and space. So we’ll just go for this for now.
Late in Peter Weir’s underrated Fearless, there’s a scene where Jeff Bridges, newly transformed from a mild-mannered San Francisco architect into a passionate bon vivant by the divine intervention of a catastrophic airline crash, violently unplugs his son’s video-game system (a TurboGrafx-16, if memory serves), protesting the cavalier attitude that the boy’s game (Splatterhouse, I think) puts forward about death. In real life, Bridges insists, there are no such things as “continues” or “extra-lives”– just one great big “game over” for the rest of forever. It’s a funny and meaningful scene for any number of reasons, not the least of which being how Bridges himself played a game designer turned video-warrior in Steven Lisberger’s Tron, but mostly for how it exposes the central fallacy of mainstream gaming in its depiction of life-or-death adventures. Because like it or not, the man is right– in real life, there are no second chances, and not just from the big stuff like death. Indeed, most of us would probably write off the consequences of life’s end if we were given just one opportunity to go back and redo some smaller, more intimate moment of our time on Earth. Whether it’s the girl that got away, that job you never got or even that ball you couldn’t hit like Casey at the bat, there’s no shortage of regrets built up over a lifetime’s worth of pruning at our own personal gardens of decision trees.
The problem with games of any ilk, digital or otherwise, is that you can always find a way to erase your past mistakes in ways that just aren’t possible in life– all you have to do is reload a past quicksave, use that last 1-up, or just call “mulligan”. That’s the problem with games, but that’s also the magic, as well. Some of the best video-games have known how to explore this territory, in their own odd ways. Sometimes they introduce crucial decisions into the matrix that can’t be so easily overwritten during the course of gameplay– whether it’s Solid Snake unable to withstand Revolver Ocelot’s torture and save the captive Meryl or Andrew Ryan’s ill-begotten offspring giving into the temptation of harvesting a Little Sister in the underwater dystopia of Rapture, there are plenty of games whose designers cleverly structure savepoints and moral choices in rather uncomfortable ways, forcing the player to live with their actions rather than going back in time and editing their mistakes, like so many Marty McFlys or Docs Brown. Sometimes, however, we see games that do not so much avoid the fallacy of gaming-revisionism as they do embrace it, making the player’s natural instinct to rewrite the past not just a feature of the game but a central tenant of its design, itself. Probably the best example of this (or at least the most well-known) would be from the experimental Legend of Zelda entry Majora’s Mask, released in 2000, which put Shigeru Miyamoto’s iconic Link on a three-day mission to save a parallel world from impending destruction, in which he must constantly travel back in time and relive the same three days in order to accomplish his quest within the limited time-span. Upon its release (and lukewarm reception), the game was often compared in the gaming press to Groundhog Day, which had only been around for seven years but had already gained a surprising popular embrace from moviegoers, film critics, philosophers and religious leaders around the world for being something more than just a mere comedy. It became one of those rare catchphrase movies were merely stating the title would be enough for people to understand its premise, and more importantly a movie with a premise that was worth embedding into pop-cultural ubiquity to begin with.
As directed by Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the screenplay after Danny Rubin’s original script, the film doesn’t appear to aim terribly high, despite the altitude of its concept. At first glance, it seems just another well-meaning, likable vehicle for Bill Murray to ply his trade as a sarcastic, egotistical clown who slowly but surely learns the value of putting up with all the other dumb schmucks who get in his way. That was the standard character arc for Peter Venkman in both of the Ghostbusters movies, the paranormal scientist who treated his research into ESP as an excuse to hit on blondes and only took interest in his colleague’s research into the afterlife once they hit upon the idea of doing it for money. It was repeated with a startling meta-clarity with Richard Donner’s modern take on Dickens in Scrooged, where Murray’s exploitative television head-honcho found himself visited by three ghosts to teach him the error of his yuppie ways in the midst of his live Christmas-Eve production of A Christmas Carol starring Buddy Hackett and Mary Lou Retton. That movie had its moments– it was funny, fitting with Murray’s anarchic Saturday Night Live roots and contained its own kind of authentic urban pathos, updating the Victorian English classic to a more contemporary Manhattanite context, and one that especially jabbed at the consumerism and corporate greed of the Reagan years. But there was something a little too on-the-nose about it, the way that all repurposings of the Dickens tale tend to be when divorced from their original surroundings. It was a Christmas comedy trying too hard to pattern itself after what had already come before, and as such could never really establish itself as a modern classic in quite the same way The Nightmare Before Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street or especially Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, whose angelic third-act twist was worthy even of the creator of old Ebenezer himself.
Earlier efforts like Ghostbusters, Stripes or even Caddyshack all offered much more authentic uses of Murray’s comic gifts, all while showing the potential he had to play a thoroughly populist, American caricature of down-on-his-luck hardship and stuck-up-his-ass contempt. In any of his slob-versus-snob laughfests, he could very easily occupy both roles at once, giving you the satirical thrills of pointing a crooked finger to snicker at all kinds of sacred cows and institutions while at the same time providing enough of a narrative beginning-middle-and-end for him to change into one of the good guys by the final reel. Yeah, he’d slack off, roll his eyes and make fun of you right in front of your face for most of the picture, but eventually he’d grow a conscience and put in a good day’s work, after all was said and done. No matter if he was breaking the rules or living up to them, he represented very much the same kind of unsentimental, working-class romantic ideal that guys like Humphrey Bogart or Steven McQueen did, except in the realm of comedy instead of noir or action– a hero of the underdog, us-vs-them spoof genre. It’s one of the reasons why you look at Scrooged and for a little while wish it was a better movie– yes, it’s got a wonderfully biting kind of satire that’s pitch-perfect for the holiday season, but the whole surrounding context of Christmas and Dickens’ structure is far too formulaic to feel anything other than phony. Though Donner did a good job of displacing much of that patterned feeling with its self-aware nature, there’s only so much you can do with the three-ghosts set-up before a sense of knowing fatigue sets in– it’s already been preordained that the Scrooge figure’s heart is going to grow three sizes and rescue the Cratchits from a fate worse than poverty, so what’s the point of paying too much attention?
As with all remakes, unless you’re willing to take chances with the source material and deviate far off track, there’s really little point in putting in too much effort to begin with. For once, Murray’s lazy mannerisms feel less like those of the character, and more like his own, sleepwalking his way through so many underdone potatoes. This is why Groundhog Day means something special, even before you get to its own supernatural themes, because it’s essentially telling exactly the same kind of Murray-esque comedy take on a good natured holiday spirit, only with one key exception– it has nothing to do with Christmas. Indeed, many have called the film a kind of secular equivalent to Dickens’ or Capra’s takes on the season, a winter’s fable with its own kind of jaded curmudgeon who learns at great lengths the value of people, generosity, and all that other bullshit. Like his best comedies, it manages to communicate that positive message with a great deal more weight than other likeminded efforts thanks to the way it indulges in meaner streaks for long periods throughout. Every Murray comedy has a big, bull’s eye of a target for all his blue-collar humor to be pointed at– Caddyshack‘s country club bluebloods, Ghostbusters‘ city bureaucrat creeps, even Rushmore‘s elite prep-school cretins, where Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson wrote what might be the defining monologue for exactly this kind of us-vs- them mentality that permeates the comedian’s work (“Take dead aim at the rich boys, get them in the cross-hairs and take them down”).
In Groundhog Day, however, the target seems to be fairly innocuous, nothing more than the small-town spirit of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania’s annual festival to determine whether or not Phil the Groundhog has seen his shadow. The townspeople are etched in an odd combination of rustic, country charm and outright dorkiness in their enthusiastic embrace of this utter charade of a holiday. It’s hard not to react to all the dumbfounded citizens with their empty pleasantries and god-awful polka music with just the same kind of barely restrained contempt that Murray’s TV-weatherman greets them upon his arrival to cover the festival alongside Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot. Truth be told, all the comedic targets of the movie are fairly large, and hard to miss– top-hatted local politicians, bald and nerdy insurance salesmen, Sonny & Cher– each of them something of a softball pitch to a major-league pro like Murray, all mere paper tigers to his seasoned hunter. The lack of a challenge is part of the joke, of course, as his character doesn’t even have to put up much of an effort to mock his way through every obstacle without them even being aware of it. It’s also part of the deeper, and more immediately apparent message– yeah, these townspeople, their music and celebrations are corny and ridiculous for any number of reasons, but they aren’t hurting anybody, so why bother getting so worked up about it? The implicit answer made apparent throughout the film is that anybody who’s so determined to pin the tail on a donkey big enough to be found blindfolded has to be a fairly big ass themselves, and more to the point is probably somebody who doesn’t really enjoy their own company too much more than anybody else. The more you target that many sitting ducks, the likelier it is you’re just going to wind up pointing the Elmer Fudd hunting rifle in your own direction.
And that’s just what happens, at great length, after the movie’s deceptively clever high-concept kicks in and begins the glorious game. Like any modern 3D adventure released for Nintendo, PlayStation or Microsoft platforms, Groundhog Day clearly establishes the closed set of its playing grounds right from the start. Attempting to leave the town after delivering a half-hearted coverage of Phil and his shadow, Murray and his co-workers find themselves blocked by a sudden storm, something he has previously dismissed on the air in his role as a televised meteorologist (instead of fog, which keeps most post 16-bit games from having to display too many polygons at once, we get snow). Weathermen function as a kind of oracle for the boob-tube, themselves another criminally easy comedy target for all their shortsighted predictions, and perhaps it’s appropriate that a man unable to correctly guess the future finds himself doomed to keep repeating the same yesterday over and over again until he learns to live in the present tense. Ramis uses a handful of cleanly repeated gags and scenes (that dopey song and dopier banter on the radio, those kindhearted idiots throughout town) to establish the temporal dilemma Murray faced better than any longwinded exposition possibly could. We don’t need some externalized moral figure to condescendingly explain the rules to us– there’s no ghost of Jacob Marley or wingless Clarence to explain to Murray’s self-absorbed weatherman that he’s going to keep repeating the same day until he learns to become a better person. All we have to do is watch with delight as he reacts to each incident with a new stage of incredulous grief, learning the limits of this rule-set at the same pace that he does, the same way you might follow a computerized avatar during a tutorial mission. Like all the best games, Groundhog Day teaches you how to play on its terms without resorting to holding your hand and dumbing things down for you. That’s one of the reasons it’s good that so many of the well meaning rubes in town aren’t that hard to beat– like the little goombas littering an early Super Mario Bros. level, it pays to keep your challenges easy while you’re still trying to get your players to clear the hump of a learning curve.
All that repetition of key phrases and routines gives so many of the townspeople a programmed feel, as well– they’re like the NPC’s found throughout the villages in any given RPG spouting off the same pre-scripted lines over and over again, even after you’ve met certain conditions. You could say that Groundhog Day amounts to one giant Zelda-style chain-quest once Murray gets his moralistic bearings, scrambling across town to meet the various demands posed by each character, helping them out as best he can. They provide an excellent stomping ground for Murray’s characteristic sarcastic anti-hero to mock throughout the film– like the repeated threats and obstacles found in similar trapped-in-a-snowglobe stories like Lost and The Prisoner, they turn the movie into a set of variations on a theme, recycling a format as many times as is possible and necessary in order to get the maximum potential out of a premise before it wears out its welcome. The shallow characters also provide a nice contrast for Murray and MacDowell, who are the only people in the film developed well enough to stand-out amidst the pre-scripted crowd, a little like two real people finding one another in an MMORPG filled with nothing but AI-bots. She’s the only one who strays from her predetermined script as much as he does, the only one who poses a real challenge to him both as a moralstic homespun girl and as a plot-device in the script. That spontaneous, spitfire character doesn’t just manifest in her dialogue or performance, but in the way that both function in the film as elements of change in the fixed system that Murray finds himself trapped in. Early on, Ramis cleverly (but by no means subtly) introduces her as a ghostly apparition on a TV-studio monitor, wearing a blue jacket against the weatherman’s blue-screen. Whereas Murray himself was introduced there as an empty-hearted ass gesturing in front of a blank canvas (a clear-sky tabula rassa, if you will), she is rendered as a kind of Mother Earth, her face and hands floating on a map of the United States. With that pleasant twang in her voice, she isn’t just a country girl, but a manifestation of the country itself.
So it’s no wonder nearly all Murray’s attempts to game the system and use the day-after-day repetition of Groundhog Day to his advantage begin and end with MacDowell. Watching him play out the same evening bit by bit over and over again to learn more about her character and thus look all the more impressive to her each successive time is like observing a gamer play the same level again and again, memorizing the landscape and locations of enemies and power-ups in order to achieve and ever-higher score, to speed-run the obstacle course in record time and as few slip-ups as possible. It’s some of the funniest stuff in the movie, but also the most telling of Murray’s character at his most egotistical, selfishly exploiting the Twilight Zone scenario he’s in that’s supposed to be teaching him how to to stop being such a jerk in the first place. But like a truly deep game, he isn’t restrained from all this bad behavior, or even really punished for it. There’s no voice of God booming down from the sky scolding him for eating so many apple-pies from the tree of knowledge, but an even more telling, even more frightening silence. It’s a game that gives zero feedback for the choices it doesn’t want you to make, one that only recognizes the right decisions, and puts the onus on the player to figure out what must be done next. It takes a long time before Murray is able to get all of that rule-breaking out of his system, testing the boundaries of the game’s conditions regarding romance, social behavior and even death until he finally knows the town’s layout and patterns by heart. He’s allowed to go on as many selfish and self-destructive phases as he wants until he finally wises up on his own accord and begins to put his temporally displaced activities to good use, performing enough good deeds over the course of a day to earn himself a whole uniform’s worth of Eagle Scout merit badges. By the end of the film, Murray has learned Punxatawney’s movements and patterns just as much as a reader of Ulysses comes to know those of Dublin on Bloomsday (which is fitting, seeing as Groundhog’s Day doubles as James Joyce’s birthday, something I’d like to think he would’ve found mildly amusing, were he aware of it).
And it may seem just as corny and sentimental as everything else in the town to see Murray turn into such a do-gooder by the end, but the over-the-top level to his generosity and the comic treatment of it helps keep it all in character. Like the Grinch sledding down from the top of Mount Crumpit or Scrooge himself making a big show of buying the biggest bird on display in the grocer’s window, his meteoric rise to morality has to be just as big and showy as the proud display of his misanthropy was beforehand. Like any piece of well-worn Americana, Groundhog Day may go to great lengths to criticize much of what’s wrong, or in this case merely foolish, about this country, but in the end it only does so out of a genuine love for it. The same can easily be said for how it treats mankind in general, with only the national landscape as its stand-in microcosm– yes, we’re all sort of silly, naive, superstitious and grumpy at any given time, but there’s also great generosity and creativity in our character, as well. Ours is a spirit that can make time move forward once again after repeating itself ad infinitum like a record skipping on a broken player– all it takes is for one broken man to open up his heart and accept that the world and its people aren’t nearly as stupid and worthless as he thinks they are (himself included). And though it’s all delivered in an easy, Reader’s Digest version of pop-mythology that’s prevalent throughout American sci-fi and comedy of the 80’s and onward, there’s something about the unpretentious holistic embrace of the film that gives it a zen kind of quality, making its message almost universal to people of all faiths, or lack thereof. Finally, this is why it’s so important to have a holiday movie that doesn’t have anything to do with a real holiday, because it articulates the religious experience without any actual religion to get in the way, and does so with a sense of humor that would probably get kicked out of any house of worship anyway. That all-embracing approach is deepened thanks to how well the narrative works as a game in play, with rules that are clearly illustrated and easy to understand even if the objectives are never stated outright. It all helps Groundhog Day become a film that isn’t merely a modern classic, but one that deserves the recognition without that contemporary signifier in front of it, and a work that ought well to work no matter how one tells it. Just as Dickens’ Christmas Carol has found itself adapted countless time for the stage and screens both big and small, I’d like to think that Ramis’ film could find itself rearticulated for any number of mediums, we well. Not long ago I recall reading that Stephen Sondheim was interested in making a Broadway musical based on it, and that’s not a bad idea. But if somebody up there likes me, then please, let me do the video-game.