GROUNDHOG DAY - Blu-ray review

We get some of the carefree manic Murray, but with a little restraint that, ironically, makes the performance more effective.

James Plath's picture

In his review of the DVD, John J. Puccio wrote that "Groundhog Day" was "one of the best things Bill Murray has ever starred in." That's probably true, but what stands out for me is how this film took viewers by surprise when it was first released back in 1993. Unlike "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," "The Wizard of Oz," or countless other films, there was no explanation for the strange time warp that Murray's character lives through. It wasn't passed off as a dream, or a momentary lapse in consciousness, or anything remotely of this world-nor was the eeriness played with dramatic "Twilight Zone" flair to emphasize the supernatural and push it into that genre. There wasn't even a plausible-but-carnivalesque explanation for the transformation as we got in films like "Big" or "The Santa Clause." There wasn't even an unexplainable but clearly defined moment you could point to, as there was in "Freaky Friday." No, "Groundhog Day" was played without any apparent concern for the cause behind the effect. This was a reality-based comedy whose matter-of-fact premise was that one day kept repeating for the film's main character. We never knew why, and why was never really the issue. How to escape the repetition was the focal point.

If that concept seems familiar now, Disney later borrowed it for "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas," in which Huey, Dewey, and Louie wish every day was Christmas" and re-live it until they learn their lesson, while "Christmas Do-Over" reworked it in live-action. And though it has a major twist, "50 First Dates" is also based on the karmic principle of repeating things until you get it right. It's why "Groundhog Day" produced a groundswell of interest and appreciation from religious groups, meditative gurus, and believers in life's fluid metaphysical properties. As director Harold Ramis remarks in an interview on this disc, they held their breath waiting for a backlash that never came. The reason? "Groundhog Day" was taken as an instructive parable by the very same people Ramis expected would protest.

Murray isn't quite as flamboyant as the brash, stoner-crazy John Winger from "Stripes," nor is he as shell-shocked and apparently introspective as the Bob Harris we would later meet in Tokyo in "Lost in Translation." Coming as it did in his mid-career, "Groundhog Day" gives us a Murray who's somewhere in between--and maybe that's why it seems like one of his best performances. We get some of the carefree manic Murray, but with a little restraint that, ironically, makes the performance more effective.

Murray plays Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, who's sent for the fourth year in a row to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. And it's no coincidence that his first name is the same as the groundhog who will predict either six more weeks of winter or an early spring. Just as the groundhog sees his shadow and retreats for more of the same--in the marmot's case, hibernation--weatherman Phil will keep repeating the day until there's no visible "shadow" of his outrageously self-centered behavior.

He's become a regular diva and fancies himself with one foot out the door to a larger market . . . and no more Punxsutawney punishments. But he's so into himself that he hardly even knows his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott), and he has nothing but bemused scorn for his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), whose perkiness and positive attitude strike him as mere naiveté. And so this trio goes to Punxsutawney, where the day after a torturous Groundhog Day the annoyed hero of the film just wants to get the heck out of town. But he awakens to the same radio song--Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe," which is hellish enough--sees the same crowdswell on the streets, and bumps into the same people who say exactly the same things.

In later movies, the repetition will become an issue, but Ramis (who co-wrote the screenplay with Danny Rubin) keeps things moving because of the different responses that Murray has--responses which include wanting to escape, taking out his anger on others, using the situation for personal gain, and finally "getting it." It's deeper and more thought-provoking than some of the later imitations, but what keeps this from being a philosophical study are engaging performances and a consistently short distance between laughs. There are some surprisingly funny sequences, many of them chronicling Phil's expanding craziness and the ways in which he challenges (and abuses) the notion of tomorrow. If, after all, there's no tomorrow, then he can be a hedonist of the first order (or worse) because there are no consequences for a life poorly lived.

"Groundhog Day" is rated PG "for thematic elements," and parents should be warned that those elements include Murray's repeated attempts to use his situation for personal (sleeping with as many women as he can) gain. There's no nudity or any language to speak of, but there are plenty of sexual situations. Hey, it's like the old locker-room fantasy. Would you run into a locker room of the opposing sex if you knew that, while you may get into trouble that day, everything would be gone and forgotten by morning? But even in this, "Groundhog Day" displays some of the restraint that characterizes Murray's performance. It's not the wild-and-crazy film it could have been in different hands, and that only makes it better, in my book.

This is the Special 15th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, and the film looks wonderful in 1080p. Though it's 15 years old, it looks just as good as "The Pink Panther," which came out just three years ago. The colors aren't as washed-out as on the DVD, and there's significantly more detail. Don't look for much in the way of 3-dimensionality, because it's just not here. But this title looks better than it ever has. There were no apparent problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a BD-50, and no visible artifacts. Just a very impressive picture for a title whose video quality has always seemed so soft to me as to be even hazy at times. Not so with the Blu-ray. "Groundhog Day

Sony has been going with the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (in this case, English, French and Portuguese options), and it's no secret that I personally prefer PCM. But aside from the strike-up-the-band scenes and a few accident-related effects this is an all-dialogue movie, and so the rear speakers don't get that much of a workout to where you'd notice a difference. I wouldn't call the soundtrack dynamic, or even rich, but there's a nice clarity and precision that extends to highs as well as lows, with a dominant mid-range that has a nice timbre. There are a ton of subtitles for this one, no doubt because the karmic interest spans cultures: English, English SDH, French, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese (traditional), Chinese (simplified), Thai, Indonesian, Dutch, and Arabic.

For collector's, the good news is that nothing is lost. A decent commentary track by Ramis is included, along with an on-camera brief interview with the director. Repeating as well from the DVD is "The Weight of Time," a 25-minute making-of feature in which we learn (among other things) that the town square was really Woodstock, Ill. Added for nature fans is a "Study of Groundhogs: A Real Life Look at Marmots" which is as fascinating as the credits that affirm a real groundhog was used for the car scene with Murray. Also included are six deleted scenes which are worth a one-time look.

"Groundhog Day" is BD-Live (Profile 2.0) enabled, but the real Blu-ray exclusive treat is an engaging picture-in-picture trivia track narrated by Stephen Tobolowsky ("Heroes," "Wild Hogs") and combines factoids with a game format. To experience "Bonus View," though, you'll need a Profile 1.1 equipped player.

Bottom Line:
"Groundhog Day" remains an entertaining film, but it's also one that can subtly, obliquely inspire you to get out of your rut, do the right things, and move on with your life--whether you believe in karma or not. And in 1080p, this film has never looked better.


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