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Groundhog Day: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott

Written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
Directed by Harold Ramis

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Review by Betsy Bozdech                    

Buddhists love it. Jesuits and fundamentalist Christians think it expresses their philosophy of life to a tee. Yogis have written Harold Ramis letters thanking him for it. Yes, folks, it's true — since Groundhog Day came out in 1993, the religious world has been embracing the high-concept Bill Murray movie as the perfect modern metaphor for life's spiritual journey. Try saying that about Caddyshack, golfing Dalai Lama or no.

Happily for the rest of us, Groundhog Day also works as a Punxsutawney-perfect comedy about a jerk who gets his cosmic comeuppance in a big way. In case you haven't already watched it so many times you feel like you're the one caught in the time warp, here's a quick plot recap: Forced to relive the same February 2 over and over in a snowy, groundhog-crazed small town in Pennsylvania, self-centered Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) gradually learns to get his life right, becoming a better person and earning the affections of angelic TV producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) along the way.

*          *          *

Groundhog Day works as well as it does thanks in large part to Murray: He's one of the few genuinely funny actors who can play both vicious and sweet so convincingly. "Bad Phil" gives Murray's sniping, sarcastic side free reign. He snaps at a sweet innkeeper (Angela Paton) and we love him; he stacks the deck to score with a cute Punxsutawney resident (Marita Geraghty) and we cheer him on. And on the flip side, "Good Phil"'s beseeching looks and generosity leave us rooting for him to get straightened out and see the light. We know all the caustic comments are just covering up for the big softie hiding inside.

It helps that Murray has such a strong supporting cast to play off. From MacDowell's earnest, emotional Rita — who reacts to Phil's different moods with just the right mixture of skepticism and faith — to Chris Elliott's snarky cameraman Larry and Stephen Tobolowsky's hilariously over-the-top insurance salesman Ned, Groundhog Day's ensemble gives Murray a chance to do some of his best work to date (he hasn't turned in a better starring turn since).

Credit is also due to Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin, not only for their consistently funny dialogue, but for not providing a specific explanation for why and how Phil gets sucked into his groundhoggy vortex. It's enough to know that he's an insincere, egotistical, smarmy blowhard — the kind of guy we'd all love to slap around a bit until he gets a clue. It's divine justice (no matter which deity you favor) that traps Phil in his own version of hell: a welcoming community chock full of nice folks and good cheer. It's divine intervention that makes him realize things could be a heck of a lot worse.

*          *          *

At the risk of sounding like an advertising soundbite, Groundhog Day is really one of those rare movies you can watch over and over again; there's always some new nuance to catch or comic angle to appreciate. And, to give those Buddhists and Jesuits credit, there is something to be said for the movie's core message: To achieve happiness (read: paradise), you must find enlightenment through soul-searching and dedicating yourself to serving others. Fairly heavy stuff for a comedy about a (as Phil would say) glorified rat. Indeed, Rubin intentionally patterned Phil's journey on the five stages of death and dying: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Which just goes to show that the old saying that comedy is harder than tragedy isn't too far from the truth.

Just how long does Phil's transformation take? According to Ramis in the commentary track he recorded for Columbia TriStar's special edition DVD, poor Phil goes through about 10 years' worth of February 2nds (down considerably from the original script's multiple millennia). At any rate, it's enough time to master the piano and ice-sculpting, learn the personal histories of everyone in town, and attempt just about every kind of suicide — and long enough for even a grade-A jerk to discover what true happiness really looks like.

Listening to Ramis, it's obvious that he (and just about everyone else involved) had a great time making the movie. He reminisces about everything from scouting for "the perfect Punxsutawney" (which turned out to be Woodstock, Ill.) to the fact that Murray actually ate most of the food he pops in his mouth during Phil's "I'm immortal so I can do whatever I want" phase. In a nice gesture, Ramis also makes a point of recognizing and praising the actors in some of the smaller supporting roles, including Murray's older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, as jolly Punxsutawney mayor Buster. The director/former Ghostbuster does get caught up in the story from time to time, lapsing into silence, but overall his commentary is a decent spin, especially if you're a big fan of the film and like getting the scoop on insiders' behind-the-scenes stories.

The other goodie on this special edition — which replaces a previous bare-bones disc — is "The Weight of Time," a brand-new 24-minute "making-of" featurette that includes interviews with Ramis, Rubin, producer Trevor Albert, Tobolowsky, and MacDowell (neither Murray nor Elliott makes an appearance). They praise each other and the film, making for a documentary that's engaging, if not revolutionary. On the plus side, "Weight" does have a few funny outtake scenes mixed in with the other behind-the-scenes footage.

Other extras include filmographies for Ramis, Murray, MacDowell, and Elliott, plus trailers for Groundhog Day, It Could Happen to You, and Peggy Sue Got Married. The old disc's full-screen version of the film is gone; you'll just have to "settle" for the sharp, clear digitally mastered anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The audio department is in fine shape, with English Dolby Digital 5.1, French 2.0, Spanish 2.0, and Portuguese 2.0 — and a bevy of subtitles to boot. Grab the disc, tuck a few brief printed production notes inside a keep-case, and you've got yourself a movie well worth adding to your collection and snuggling up to every snowy Groundhog Day. So rise and shine, campers, because it's cold out there!

— Betsy Bozdech

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