Saturday, February 2, 2013

Comedy, Nietzsche and the Meaning of Life in GROUNDHOG DAY

You know what you're supposed to be watching right now, right? Groundhog Day!

The tradition of Groundhog Day is that a large, furry rodent emerges from his burrow on February 2 of each year, and his reaction to the weather outside gives us information about how long the winter will last. If it's sunny enough for the groundhog to see his shadow, it presages six more weeks of col weather. But if it's cloudy or otherwise murky enough that he doesn't see his shadow, we can all celebrate an early spring. Go, vision-impaired groundhog!

Legend has it that Groundhog Day began in the United Stated with German settlers in Pennsylvania, as a celebration of Candemas Day. And that's why Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil is the granddad of groundhog prognosticators.

In Illinois, we have two choices (that I know of) for weather forecasting woodchucks on Groundhog Day. There's Peoria (or environs, anyway), where Gertie tells the future of the weather at the Wildlife Prairie State Park. And Woodstock, where the film Groundhog Day was filmed back in 1992. Although Woodstock was only standing in for Punxsutawney in the movie, the town has embraced the Groundhog phenomenon as if it began there.

I am happy to report that all three prime groundhog sites -- Punxsutawney, Peoria and Woodstock -- have predicted an early spring this year. Yes, that's right. No groundhog has seen his shadow today.

That gives you even more reason to celebrate by watching the movie Groundhog Day. Directed and co-written by Chicago native Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day is a lovely piece of work. Part romantic comedy, part philosophical exploration of the meaning of life, the film has been embraced by Christians, Jews and Buddhists as well as a film scholar who thinks it's a perfect illustration of Friedrich Nietzsche's "thoughts about eternal return."

The beauty of Groundhog Day is that it does all its heavy lifting, all it soul searching, with a light, sweet tone that keeps you smiling and engaged throughout. As the story of a man, a sarcastic, shallow weatherman, who keeps waking up to the same day, who can't get unstuck from Groundhog Day until he learns and grows and becomes a better person, Groundhog Day has a clear message about embracing life tucked inside the comedy. Bill Murray's patented smart-ass character works perfectly inside that conceit, and he shows what a good actor he can be with Phil the weatherman's growth arc. Andie MacDowell is just fine as the warm and sympathetic love interest, while Chris Elliott and Stephen Tobolowsky (who plays Ned Ryerson, which happens to be the name of a guy I went to high school with -- Hi, Ned!) create wonderful supporting characters.

And the screenplay, credited to Ramis and Danny Rubin, is a terrific example of why comedy works as an art form and how well it can illuminate our lives. If I'm honest, I am much more moved by this movie than any five-hankie weeper. As we near the Oscars and their annual beatification of brooding dramas about death, war and "important" topics, that's a good lesson to remember.

If Groundhog Day is on the telly today, I'm not finding it in the listings. But it is available from Netflix and Amazon, and, of course, I own a copy.

Happy Groundhog Day! You know where to find me.


  1. Three cheers for Groundhog Day the movie! I too own a copy on DVD. For me it's ones of those gems that bypassed all the givers of awards and "official" recognition when it was new, to become a true immortal classic over the years.

    I was surprised to discover, listening to the DVD commentary, that the original script began with Bill Murray's character already trapped inside his endlessly repeating day. I can't imagine that working or being as affecting, so I'm glad that others insisted on changes before they went into preproduction.

  2. The other thing that was new to me was that Harold Ramis and Bill Murray had a falling out during the filming and haven't worked together since. Ramis is a good writer and director, but that separation seems to have worked better for Murray.

    I agree, though, that the movie wasn't really greeted as anything special (except in Woodstock IL) when it came out. Now it shows up in film textbooks.

  3. Excellent post, Julie.

    I think that "Groundhog Day" ended up one of the best scripts ever written, and many others have said the same. There are a lot of lessons a writer can learn from that movie.

    By the way, here is a recent book purchase I made, which I plan to read as soon as I get the time:

    Love your blog.

    You are, truly, The God-ess of Thea-tah!

    Allen (:>

  4. I put it on my wish list, Allen. (I keep that as a sort of To Buy Later list.)

  5. And speaking of Netflix: I'm looking forward to your review of "House of Cards". I've gotten through the first three episodes, and I like it very much.

    It has been compared by David Bianculli to "The Sopranos".

    But, so far, I have not yet seen it hit those heights. I'll watch more today.

    Would love to know what you think.


  6. I saw the British version when it was on PBS a while ago. I liked that one a lot. Ian Richardson was marvelously wicked. I actually don't have Netflix at the moment (I left in a fit of pique when they changed their pricing structure) but I was planning to go back when Arrested Development came back, so maybe I will do it now and see this new House of Cards. The old one reminded me more of Richard III than The Sopranos, but I honestly didn't see enough Sopranos to compare.

  7. I finished all 13 episodes in one weekend. Is that so wrong???

    I guess I'm just a sucker for a soliloquy.

    I'm getting the British version next. Does it have soliloquies too?


  8. Yes, it has soliloquies. I think that's why it reminded me of Richard III, because he keeps confessing his wickedness to us while scamming other people. The character of the wife is different in the British one, though. I don't remember her at all, really, while this one (Robin Wright) is really a piece of work! I've watched five episodes now. It seemed a lot alike for the first two and then I think it went off on its own. I like it. But I liked the first two better than the next three. By now I am kind of hating on both Frank and his wife and maybe even the reporter. I think I liked Francis Urquhart (the British one) more. It's hard to beat that sly, charming British evil.

  9. Oh, and the movie I was telling you about is called Amber Rose and Mike Trippiedi is the director.

    or my review here: