Cinema: Go ahead - make your day: Hollywood plays with time again in Bill Murray's new film. Anthony Lane clocks on

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The Independent Culture
A MAN runs for a train. He catches it, and from there a new chapter in his life unfolds. Cut. He runs for the train again, misses it, but meets someone on the platform . . . Such was the conceit of Kieslowski's Blind Chance (1981), which offered its hero three possible routes, all starting from the same point. Film is especially vulnerable to these kinks and fissures of time, for its own span is fixed, with no conductor to inflame or dampen the pace. That is why, within a movie's glassy scheme, we love to see time turning liquid - flashbacks, slow motion, dream bursts - or repeating itself: another body on the floor, the punctual roar of a motorbike in Local Hero, the certainty that Sam will play it again. But these are details, not the whole da capo tune. Surely, even for movies, that is asking too much. 'In the life of a man, never / The same time returns.' Thus Thomas a Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, and he was right about most things. We are in the hands of God; only 'the fool, fixed in his folly, may think / He can turn the wheel on which he turns.'

Well, that fool is here, and his name is Phil Connors. Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as the man to whom the same time keeps returning. Phil is a TV weatherman, which means standing in front of a camera making extravagant gestures at a vacant screen. A great job. His life is dull and void, and once a year it gets even voider, when he goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to celebrate Groundhog Day. The groundhog is, well, a kind of hog that lives in the ground. It looks like David Mellor in a mink coat and is linked by local myth to the coming weather - hence the need for Phil.

The day dawns, and Phil goes about his business; hemmed in by snowfalls, he stays overnight. The next day dawns, only there's nothing next about it. It's the same day, all over again. He gets up, goes to work, goes to bed. The day dawns. And so on. Nobody else seems to notice - to them, life flows on like a river; only Phil is stuck fast, frozen in time's ice, a needle stuck in the groove of Groundhog Day. From here on, the film explores every avenue of a life with no tomorrow. Phil can get arrested, thrown in jail, and wake up in his own bed; he can ask a woman her name, then greet her with it the following day, although as far as she's concerned this is the first time they've met; and above all, he is, logically, immune to hangovers. Thomas a Becket only had four tempters; he got off lightly.

Why is Groundhog Day so peculiarly satisfying? Harold Ramis's direction is nothing special, yet there is a beautiful, lip-smacking efficiency in the way that a great idea is touched off and followed to its conclusion. One question dogs it every step of the way: is this heaven or hell? Given Phil's chance, would we whittle our life to perfection, or turn crazy on the treadmill? The film is haunted by boredom, not least by the fact that Phil can never die of it. But he didn't exactly lead a firecracker existence beforehand, and one could argue that Phil stands for all the weary, work-scuffed heroes of cinema; the Chaplin of Modern Times, arms still tightening an invisible nut from hours on the assembly-line, would know just how he felt. Phil could only be played by Bill Murray, of course, our highest judge of the quick and the deadpan. From Stripes to Ghostbusters, the expression on that flat disc of a face has said, 'This isn't happening to me'. Well, now it really isn't. Nothing is happening to him, over and over again.

Groundhog Day may be scatty and fragmented, yet in some way the fragments revolve like a mobile. No other medium could have taken this daft plot and lent it such weird purity; Phil sees his life in the way that we watch a favourite film, returning with pleasure to its untouched state, yet noticing new pleasures every time. Jacques Rivette gave us the same illusion with Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), where the taste of a sweet on the tongue unplugs a flood of memory. At any rate, it feels like memory - the vision of a house once seen by the heroines - except that each revisit dislodges their perception of what took place. This has the splutter of farce, of a plot that keeps going off the rails or slamming into the buffers - an unlikely coupling of Proust and Feydeau. What happens to us, Rivette says, is woven tightly into what might have happened, and what could yet happen, and we cannot hope to tease the strands apart.

Phil Connors is able to go one better than this, and add some improvements - rushing into a restaurant every night, for instance, just in time to smack the heaving back of a man who has started to choke on a bone. Though caged in by the calendar and clock, Phil is blessed with the tinkering powers of a minor, benevolent deity. We have seen this before, in Back to the Future, where Michael J Fox zipped back in time and struggled to arrange for his own existence. The sequels never captured the chirpy, out-of-breath desperation of the first movie, with its faint tang of incest, and its horror of life being wiped like a blackboard. Cinema has fed hungrily on the notion that time-travel doesn't just broaden the mind, but can save the soul as well. The source of this is A Christmas Carol, whose gush of goodwill resurfaced with Frank Capra in 1946, this time at double strength: first run through the hero's history, then glance at what the world would have been like without him. Add the two together, and the answer is: It's a Wonderful Life. 'Each man's life touches so many other lives,' the angel tells Jimmy Stewart, 'and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole.'

Groundhog Day goes easy on the therapy; there's a mild suggestion that love will break the deadlock, but Ramis doesn't push it. Even with Andie MacDowell as co-star, there's little space for sentiment; even good works are done for a lark. We are free to ponder other matters, such as: what on earth was this movie like to shoot? 'Scene Three, Take 12' - sounds fine, except that almost every scene is itself a sort of take. Phil is like a director filming his own experience, brushing up old hat and getting it just right. You never want it to end, although for his sake you know that it must. Such blessed release was never granted to his distant cousins, the old grouch of Krapp's Last Tape or the Winnie of Happy Days. Beckett showed us a kind of sorry-go-round, a looptape of distress on which his characters stoically spun. It takes a major Hollywood studio to show us the other side of the coin, and come up with good silly reasons to seize the day. Some things never change.

'Groundhog Day' (PG) opens on Fri. Anthony Lane is film critic of the 'New Yorker'.

(Photograph omitted)