FIL / Go ahead, remake my day

IT WAS Bill Murray who in Ghostbusters provided the still centre for the swelling tornadoes of special effects. When a demoness did spectacular multiple somersaults over his head he murmured to no one in particular 'Nimble little minx, isn't she?' and gave no indication that his heart rate had increased by so much as a beat.

The joke in Ghostbusters depended on the excellence of the special effects - unless the audience was dazzled, Murray's indifference would work against the film - but the actor's shtick as Mr Unimpressed has proved surprisingly serviceable. In his best roles there is a sort of sardonic forcefield around him, keeping him at an odd remove from the world. He's unimpressed, but what makes him likeable is that he makes no real claim to superiority. It's not that he's super-cool, he's just unimpressed. He can play unattractive characters, but when he does, his sleaziness has a sort of innocence to it. It's as if he hasn't noticed that his motives are base and his actions self-serving. He's willing to change.

He may, for instance, hump a woman's leg when he first meets her, but once it's explained to him that flowers and sweet talk stand more chance of making her like him, he'll try that instead. It's just that something in the way he does it leaves the possibility open that treating a woman to flowers and sweet talk may just be a subtler way of humping her leg.

Now Harold Ramis, who wrote Ghostbusters, has directed and co-written (with Danny Rubin) Groundhog Day (PG), a vehicle for Murray with an oddly haunting central idea.

Phil Connors, a jaded weatherman, wakes up the day after 2 February - when he has had to present a segment from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, commemorating the ceremony of Groundhog Day, when a rodent's behaviour is used to predict the arrival of spring - to find that Sonny and Cher's 'I Got You Babe' is playing on his clock-radio, exactly as it was the morning before. The DJ's patter is reproduced word for word, and at first he thinks that they've mixed up their tapes, until it dawns on him that it is 2 February that is repeating itself. For the rest of the film he experiences hundreds, perhaps thousands, of 2 Februarys, unable to break out of the cycle of repetition.

This simple situation, which the character experiences alternately as dream and as nightmare, since he can manipulate events within the day but apparently never escape from it, has any amount of resonance. To an existential philosopher, the hero, condemned to freedom in a quite specific way, might seem to embody the human condition, in its combination of responsibility and pointlessness. To a religious sensibility, Groundhog Day might seem to offer an exquisite example of divine justice, whereby a sinner is punished by being given so much of his sin that he chokes on it. The hero, whose vices are self-absorption and disdain for the world, is forced to inhabit a universe where only he is real, and to understand that this is hell.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever played a video game (and this is not a market segment that Hollywood can be accused of ignoring) will recognise that Phil Connors (Murray) wakes up in a sort of virtual reality of that past time. As he moves through the same landmarks day after day, he racks up predetermined points and penalties. Getting wiped out doesn't stop the cosmic game, as he discovers after a protracted phase of suicide. There is only going to be one way - at most - of making an escape from the existential software, and he has to discover what it is.

Many of the points and penalties that the hero scores are attached to the figure of his colleague Rita (Andie MacDowell), as upbeat as he is pessimistic, as fresh as he is jaded. First of all he tries to manipulate her into bed, but finds - montage of his face being slapped in a variety of settings - that this is not possible in the few recurring hours at his disposal. Her body is simply off-limits by the rules of the game. Next he tries her mind, convincing her of the reality of his plight - by now he knows the life story of most of the town's inhabitants and can 'predict' events he's witnessed many times. She stays the night with him out of sympathy, but still she has vanished by the time he wakes up the previous morning. Finally, he lays siege to her heart, which is necessarily a longer project. Day after repeated day he takes piano lessons, practises his ice-sculpting, performs acts of civic virtue, until finally he has become a person she could love. Tiny cumulative changes in his personality finally sweep her off her feet.

This is where the script begins to yield diminishing returns. For one thing, since for Rita each 2 February is her first, the character can't develop, and she remains in essence a lovely hologram. The Bill Murray character, on the other hand, develops altogether too much. The twinge of amorality in his persona - the idea that he could improve his behaviour without changing his nature - can't survive the thorough-going programme of reform that is necessary to break the cycle of the story.

It is this unwelcome hint of uplift near the end of a hitherto inventive film that reveals the parentage of Groundhog Day. Like so many successful films, it derives by variation and inversion from It's a Wonderful Life. Whereas in Capra's film a man who thought he had made no contribution to the world was shown that things would have been a whole lot worse if he hadn't existed, in Groundhog Day the hero is shown that to date he has made no contribution, and is forced by a sort of erosion therapy to live up to his potential. The shared theme of second chances (ubiquitous in the film production of a country that still regards itself in some way as some big second chance, an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of other countries) is symbolised in Life by the New Year - the calendar reborn; in Groundhog Day by the beginning of spring - the rebirth of nature.

In Groundhog Day, the hero and the narrative function as a single unit, which is a formally satisfying device for most of the time but also bad news, since the plot can't be worked out (which we want) without the character changing completely (which we don't). But even at its most negligible, Harold Ramis's film is intensely cinematic, not because he is some kind of genius director - he's not - but because in the end it's down to film language whether the hero is in hell or in heaven: whether the camera keeps pace with the unbearably repetitive elements that begin each day, or cuts blithely from one version of a scene to the next, as if Phil Connors were no more than an actor granted an infinite number of takes to get his scene right.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice