The premise of the romantic comedy “Groundhog Day” is essentially “if you had it to do over again — and again — what would you do differently.”
The fablelike gimmick takes a while to click. And while you have to hand it to Harold Ramis (who co-scripted, co-produced and directed) for his stick-to-itiveness, the film is inconsistent in tone and pace. Fortunately the payoff works, bringing some much-needed warmth to the wry comic proceedings. Audiences are likely to forgive the dry patches and leave the theater smiling. With a cast headed by Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, “Groundhog Day” could cast a box office shadow for the remaining weeks of winter.
Phil (Murray), a cynical TV weatherman, is perpetually stuck in his own private hell in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pa., where he has come to report on the Groundhog Day festivities. Every morning he revisits the same day, Feb. 2 , awakening at 6 a.m. to Sonny & Cher on the clock radio. He undergoes every conceivable emotional permutation — from confusion to anger to cockiness to despair — and finally thaws into a benificent soul.
The situation is ripe with comic potential — it’s as if Andy Griffith’s Mayberry was crossed with Lerner & Loewe’s “Brigadoon” (L&L’s “Almost Like Being in Love” from “Brigadoon” is sung by Nat King Cole in the film).
But the script by Danny Rubin and Ramis provides more chuckles than belly laughs. Some sequences are crisply paced and comically terse, others ramble and unravel and still others just plain don’t work.
The character of Phil is tailor-made for Murray’s smug screen persona, perhaps too much so. There are times when you wish that Phil was being played by someone with the floppy daffiness of a Chris Elliott, who is largely wasted here , or at least the Murray who was so delightfully affable in “What About Bob?”
Without the glow of MacDowell’s bemused and charming performance as Murray’s segment producer and eventual romantic interest, it’s hard to gauge the progress of his character’s transformation, to know exactly when he’s still commenting ironically on the situation or is actually attempting to be sincere.
Of the supporting players, Stephen Tobolowsky is hilarious in a loose-limbed turn as Murray’s cloying former schoolmate.
Ramis’ direction is often too cool and restrained. He wisely avoids playing into the tale’s underlying sentimentality. In the hands of a more earnest director the film might have made it unbearable. Still, a little more genuine feeling along the way wouldn’t have hurt. When the film finally does give in to its romantic Capra-esque side, it satisfies.
Technical credits are professional and handsome. John Bailey’s expert cinematography is of great service in the suspension of disbelief — since everyday has to look like exactly the same day. Production design by David Nichols nicely captures the feel of small-town rust-belt America.