Somewhat at random, I rewatched “Groundhog Day,” which I haven’t seen since back in the early 90s when it came out. I hadn’t realized that in the intervening years it’s become something of a classic. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a negative review about it on the Internets (or at least I couldn’t find one after a cursory search.)
So I figured I’d buck the trend. This movie is crap. Yes, the gimmick is clever; Bill Murray’s weatherman Phil relives February 2 in the hick town of Punxsutawney over and over and over and over. At first Phil’s confused; then he’s angry; then he starts to use the gimmick for cheap thrills (one night stands; drunken car chases); then he tries to get into the pants of his coworker Rita (Andie McDowell); then he despairs; then he becomes a better person and gets Andie McDowell anyway and finally he gets out of the time loop. He has suffered and grown as a person. Ta dah.
Except. The acting. It is. Lame. Phil’s journey of spiritual growth is at the center of the film, and Bill Murray…well, spiritual growth is not what he does. What he does is oleaginous and mean. He is good at it. When, in the early scenes, he is supposed to be oleaginous and mean, he is convincing. When, in the later scenes, he is supposed to be sincere and good-hearted — he is still convincingly oleaginous. By the end of the film we are to believe that he has shucked off his ego and his duplicity — and we know he has shucked off his ego because the last 15 minutes of the film is a giant, blatant, wish-fulfillment fantasy in which everyone in town surges around Phil telling him what a wonderful person he is and how much his good deeds have meant to them and Andie McDowell finally pays everything in her checkbook to be able to go snuggle with him and ooh and ah over his ice sculptures (he taught himself with his infinite time). And Bill Murray shuffles through it all with his cocktail singer aw-shucks-I-don’t-really-deserve-this-but-of-course-I-really-do air, smugly accepting the hosannahs of the scriptwriters who have dutifully made him the center of the universe.
Bad as Murray is, though, he is a positive genius compared to Andie McDowell. Granted, the writers hardly bothered to give Rita a character. The film chides Phil for treating her as a list of characteristics to memorize (she likes French poetry and Rocky Road ice cream), but the fact is that there’s not anything else there. Phil at one point declares that she’s the person he knows who is nicest to other people, but we’re never allowed to see that for ourselves. Her “niceness” seems mostly to just mean “blandness” and the smarmiest kind of sententious drivel — she informs Phil sincerely that whenever she makes a toast, she always drinks to world peace. Even considering such wretched material, though, McDowell turns in a wet dish rag of a performance; any emotion more complicated than perkiness or mild confusion seems to be beyond her. Why Phil should devote eternity to winning this sodden nonentity is a mystery only rivaled by the question of why, even after an eternity, she should fall for such a narcissistic gasbag. Murray has more chemistry with the groundhog than he does with her.
I’ve seen “Groundhog Day” compared to “It’s a Wonderful Life” — both use magical alternate realities to teach their protagonists the virtues of old fashioned niceness and small town life. The difference is that Jimmy Stewart can project love, happiness, and, most of all, despair — his dark night of the soul comes across as actually shattering — so much so that it seriously calls into question whether this nice small town isn’t just a plaster stage set over the abyss. “Groundhog Day” never bothers to question its reality this way because, it’s clear, neither the movie nor Murray care whether its real or not. The small town virtues Capra loved are for Harold Ramis just a convenient moral peg on which to hang some gags. The existential despair that Stewart wrestles with is just another non-emotion failing to flicker across Murray’s doughy visage.
“Groundhog Day” is clever, but it’s a hollow kind of cleverness. It’s a film that ultimately doesn’t believe in anything but the mechanical repetition of its own tired rom-com tropes. Bad boy is saved by a good woman, lives happily ever after. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
“I may be a bastard, but I’m not a fucking bastard,” George Clooney says before driving off into the sunset at the end of “From Dusk Till Dawn.” That neatly encapsulates the central theme of the movie, which is precisely that Clooney’s outlaw/kidnapper/tough-guy Seth is bad, bad, bad enough to be sexy, but not so bad that he can’t be the star. Most discussions of the film focus on its mid-stream genre break; halfway through or thereabouts it switches from a suspenseful outlaw-on-the-run action/drama to a campy vampire horror gore fest. But if you keep your eye on the Clooney (and that’s where you’re supposed to keep your eye, surely), it looks less like a daring narrative structure and more like a foregone conclusion. In the first half of the film, Seth’s psycho-rapist brother Richie (Quentin Tarantino) serves as the foil to make the only-moderately-homicidal Clooney look reasonable. In the second half, an entire titty-bar full of fanged and clichéd special effects is unleashed to make him look not merely reasonable but heroic.
Rodriguez wants us to think he’s hip and iconoclastic, smart enough to cut contemptuously away from the tough vet telling his gothic Vietnam story, cute enough to name his Mexican bad-ass Sex Machine. But nobody mocks or undercuts George Clooney; he’s the star and Rodriguez fawns over him like an 8-year-old over Han Solo. Salma Hayek singles him out to be her slave, but he puts a stake through her; Juliette Lewis singles him out to be her daddy, but he sends her on home. Though he’s been in prison for years, we never in fact, see him express any concupiscent interest in any woman. Rodriguez, it seems, likes his bad boys virginal.
Overall, if I have to choose, I guess I would rather watch Rodriguez fall for Clooney than McDowell fall for Murray, if only because Rodriguez’s passion seems infinitely more sincere. But really — why does anybody have to fall for any iteration of this? What is the fascination of these fascinatingly flawed fucks, gratuitously flaunting their ingratiating unpleasantness? Why can’t Murray just get stuck in his infinite loop forever because Andie McDowell is just marginally sentient enough to realize that he’s always, always going to remain an asshole? Why can’t some vampire tear off George Clooney’s face as he tries to betray Juliette Lewis and her family because he is, as it turns out, not just a bastard, but a fucking bastard? Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of those same old happy endings where the bad guys always win?