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In Groundhog Day movie, playing a formerly smug weatherman who finds himself condemned to relive one Feb. 2 over and over again in Punxsutawney, Pa., Bill Murray explains his feelings to two bleary-eyed, beer-drinking locals. “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and everything was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” he asks despairingly. The two strangers listen very sympathetically. They didn’t have to be trapped by a magic spell to know what he means.
That glimmer of recognition is what makes Groundhog Day full movie a particularly witty and resonant comedy, even when its jokes are more apt to prompt gentle giggles than rolling in the aisles. The story’s premise, conceived as a sitcom-style visit to the Twilight Zone, starts out lightweight but becomes strangely affecting. Phil Connors, Mr. Murray’s interestingly rude Pittsburgh television personality, definitely deserves to be punished for his haughtiness. But who in the audience hasn’t ever wished time would stand still and offer a second, third or even a 20th chance?
The jaded Phil, a perfect character for Mr. Murray, begins the story sounding terminally smooth. He refers to himself as “talent,” and addresses a fellow newscaster as “Hairdo.” He sneers at Punxsutawney and is contemptuous of his own charming producer (Andie MacDowell) and darkly funny cameraman (Chris Elliott). He even delivers pleasant-sounding insults to the proprietors of the bed-and-breakfast where he is staying, not realizing he may be staying there forever.
As directed with ease by Harold Ramis (who co-wrote the screenplay with Danny Rubin), Groundhog Day movie makes use of the sort of time-bending trickery that worked so wonderfully for “Back to the Future.” Thus, Phil finds himself revisiting the recent past and coming face to face with people not fully aware of his special powers. On the first Feb. 2, he is gleefully obnoxious to everyone he encounters, including an insurance salesman named Ned (Stephen Tobolowsky, hilarious as the most crucial pest). But as time goes by — or doesn’t — Phil begins to try out different gambits, testing the limits of his plight. He realizes that he can’t do anything bad enough to keep himself from waking up under the same flowered quilt, listening to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” on the clock radio at exactly 6 A.M. Not even smashing the radio to bits will make them shut up.
Wildly frustrated at first, Phil gradually begins to treat his plight as a learning experience. He can, for example, take enough piano lessons to impress Ms. MacDowell’s mesmerizing Rita, once he learns how wrong he was to treat her so badly. One of the film’s many repetitive sequences shows Phil on a date with Rita, learning so much about her that he can begin sounding like a mind reader and passing himself off as the perfect mate. “You couldn’t plan a day like this!” Rita finally sighs happily. “Well, you can,” says Phil. “It just takes an awful lot of work.”
The film makes the most of the sentimental possibilities in Phil’s rehabilitation. (Viewers who notice Phil ignoring a panhandler on his first Groundhog Day will surely know where that setup is headed.) But it also has fun with the nihilism. Phil eagerly tries every self-destructive chance now available for him, from jumping off buildings to smoking cigarettes to overeating and refusing to floss; at one moment he even casually robs an armored truck, just to test if he can. “Well, what if there is no tomorrow?” he anxiously asks someone. “There wasn’t one today!”
Mr. Murray is back in top form with a clever, varied role that draws upon the full range of his talents. As in “Scrooged,” he makes a transition from supreme cynic to nice guy, and this time he does so with particularly good grace. Half Capra and half Kafka, the story of Groundhog Day movie presents golden opportunities, particularly in the gently romantic scenes with Ms. MacDowell. Mr. Murray is as believable and appealing at these moments as he is flinging insults. Ms. MacDowell, a warm comic presence and a thorough delight, plays a modern working woman while also reminding viewers that this is at heart a fairy tale. As Phil tries one desperate motif after another, fairy tale fans will be miles ahead of him, knowing exactly what it takes to break a spell, or a curse.