FILM / The time of his life, and mine

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The Independent Culture
THE WHIRLIGIG of time blows a fuse in Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a TV-weatherman locked in time, destined to live the same day over and over again. Today, and today, and today, creeps in this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time. It wouldn't be so bad if today were something special, but it's Groundhog Day, his direst assignment of the year: a folksy festival, in freezing February, when he has to join the burghers of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in their dawn vigil for the Groundhog, presage of spring. His piece perfunctorily performed, he looks forward to going home the next day. But time that waits for no man, takes a nap.

This is a one-gag movie, but it's a hell of a gag, and Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis elaborate and ornament it beautifully, so it never gets addled. Murray's curmudgeonly forecaster finds that being here for eternity gives him licence as well as longueurs. The old day that dawns for him is new for everyone else, so he has privileged knowledge. He can rehearse his life. Having botched a date with his kindly, amused producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), through boorishness, he can re-play the scene as the sensitive aesthete he now knows is her type. And he needn't worry about the consequences of his actions. He can live like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.

Bill Murray has been waiting for this great role. He seemed poised to steal his early films, from Meatballs to Ghostbusters, but ended up just looking shifty. Still, they grossed half a billion dollars, so nobody complained. In his last part, as the multi-phobic Bob of What About Bob?, he extended his range but curbed his wit. Here he has both the sureness and the sourness. With his mottled face and bracing sarcasm, he's a sullen clown in the W C Fields mould. In the early scenes of Groundhog Day, doing his bored weather spiel, and inuring himself to his hick boarding-house and fussing landlady, he shows his mastery of playing warring emotions: mirthless laughter, grimacing politesse, wintry warmth.

As time slows down, Murray's timing speeds up. He stuns a diner full of people, and us, with a lightning resume of each of their lives. He plays the same breakfast scene a dozen times, each with a different spin on it; he's so far ahead of us that he leaves us panting and giggling as we catch up. But the role is more than a comic turn. It deepens along with Phil's despair, as he begins to feel trapped. We see him move from giddy cynicism to forlorn hopelessness. When he wakes up the morning after committing suicide, he doesn't even bother to get out of his pyjamas for the hotel breakfast.

Director Harold Ramis handles these shifts of mood so delicately that it's hard to believe he's the same man who has spent his career National Lampooning us. Taking his lead from Paganini on the soundtrack, he works variations on the original gag, altering tempo and angle of attack. After one of Phil's failed sexual advances on Rita, we see her hand smacking him round the chops - and then again, and again, to show that his rebuff's nightly. When Phil throws himself off a ledge, his fall, shot from above, is a poignant swallow dive you know will be broken by the cold splash of another Groundhog morning rather than the serene waters of oblivion.

Time and the movies are such old bedfellows that it's odd they've had so few laughs together. J W Dunne in An Experiment with Time argued that time is like a roll of film, and in our dreams we're able to jump to frames in the future. Film-makers like Nicolas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci have pursued the analogy, making time parallel rather than linear, stretching and squeezing it. But screen comedy has been less inventive, moralising with might-have- been scenarios, like It's a Wonderful Life. Groundhog Day turns Capraesque too, but it's also a rare comedy that jokes with film as well as on it. It may turn out to be timeless.

The great women's roles are provided these days by a Chinese director, Zhang Yimou. His fourth film, The Story of Qiu Ju, is the first set in the present day, and again stars Gong Li, leading lady of his heart-rending studies of women's oppression in 1920s feudal China. As Qiu Ju, she's almost unrecognisable from the glamorous concubine of Raise the Red Lantern, having swapped shining raiment for dull peasant garb. Pregnant, she trudges through China on a quest for justice. Her husband has been injured by his village chief. Qiu Ju, looking for an apology rather than money, takes the case from village to district to city, as each ruling disappoints her.

Though Qiu Ju is on the move, the story stays still. There's much unravelling of red tape, but little drama. The chief pleasures are Gong Li, with her simple suffering face and iron sense of self-worth, and Lei Lao Sheng, as the chief seeking to salvage pride by treating his fine as a business transaction. Yimou abandons the elegant formality of his earlier films for a freer, documentary style, much of it shot from Qiu Ju's viewpoint. The searing tragedy of his previous work gives way to a bleak irony that suggests the law is a game that simple goodness isn't equipped to play.

Walter Hill's Trespass is like a rap version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, bounty hunted to rap hits and a jangling Ry Cooder score. Bill Paxton and William Sadler play a couple of Southern red-necks searching for riches in a derelict building in East St Louis, Illinois. There's gold in them thar storehouses. Trouble is, before they can get it out they have to run the gauntlet and awesome automatic weaponry of a gang of drug pushers, led by King James (Ice T). The gang is furnished with portable phones and - the latest in chic street crime - a camcorder, to which Hill occasionally cuts. The good ol' boys hope to escape up the chimney, but King James' version is to shoot or burn them out.

Hill has stalked this wasteland before, in The Warriors and Streets of Fire. Here he cuts to the chase after the opening credits. Like the grizzly old dosser (Art Evans) squatting in the building, we're caught in the crossfire, grudgingly drawn in as Hill ratchets up the tension. Crouch in the corner and thrill to Hill's hurtling camera. And flinch at a scene with a syringe that makes Reservoir Dogs' razor escapade look like a nick at the barber's.

Rich in Love is about how a down- home Southern family copes when Mom (Jill Clayburgh) does a runner. When you meet Pop (Albert Finney), the sort of man whose ideal evening is spent in front of the TV with a large carton of crisps, you'll be surprised she didn't leave earlier. There are a couple of daughters - mousy Lucille (Kathryn Erbe) and Rae, played by Suzy Amis, whose frisky grace is the movie's high-spot - and Rae's lover Billy (Kyle MacLachlan, in Twin Peaks, stranger-to-these-parts mode). Finney pads around in shorts and tent-like shirt, his Southern accent wavering with his emotions. We're supposed to feel these troubled lives are redeemed by passion. Director Bruce Beresford runs on the same Southern-charm ticket as in Driving Miss Daisy, but is closer to driving us crazy.

'Groundhog Day' (PG): Odeons Leicester Sq (930 3232) & Kensington (371 3166), Whiteleys (792 3324) and general release. 'The Story of Qiu Ju' (12): Curzon West End (439 4805), Screen on the Hill (435 3366), Gate (727 4043). 'Trespass' (18): Plaza (497 9999) and general release. 'Rich in Love' (18): Whiteleys (792 3324), MGMs Trocadero (434 0032), Fulham Rd (373 6990), Tottenham Ct Rd (636 6148), Baker St (935 9772). All numbers are 071.