Dear Phil: Weather great, glad you’re not here

By M.V. Moorhead

My mom is a Mississippi native, but marriage brought her to northwestern Pennsylvania, a little north of the town of Punxsutawney, most famous as the home of Groundhog Day.

Mom has always said she doesn’t care that much whether Punxsutawney Phil, the prophetic rodent at the heart of the observance, sees his shadow or not—for Mom, the idea that there’s only six more weeks in which to endure that gray, marrow-chilling, windshield-encrusting, driveway-covering desolation is cause enough for celebration by itself.

If you’ve ever been through a western Pennsylvania winter, you know what she means.

Another reason to celebrate this most curious of American holidays, even here in sunny Arizona, is that it gives us an excuse to watch Groundhog Day.

This wonderful 1993 fantasy from director Harold Ramis, readily available on DVD, is a true classic of ‘90s cinema, and it may contain star Bill Murray’s best performance (his work in Rushmore is its only competition for that title).

For the uninitiated: Groundhog Day concerns a Pittsburgh TV weatherman named Phil Connors, a sour, cynical prima donna who doesn’t feel he’s gotten his career due, and is miserable at the prospect of covering the Punxsutawney festivities yet again.

Snowed into town with his idealistic, guileless producer (Andie MacDowell) and an unimpressed cameraman (Chris Elliot), Phil wakes up the next morning to find that...it isn’t the next morning.

It’s the same morning. The song on the radio is the same, the people he encounters in the hallway of his bed-and-breakfast say the same things, the groundhog festival in the center of town is the same.

Feb. 2, simply said, is playing itself over again.

The only difference is Phil: He’s aware of it, and free to act differently, and change the course of the day for himself and others. When he goes to bed on this second Groundhog Day, he wakes up to find the phenomenon repeating itself.

This sounds, in description, like one of those clever gimmicks that Rod Serling would dream up for The Twilight Zone, and it may sound like it would only hold up to that show’s half-hour treatment.

But the script, by Ramis and Danny Rubin, mines the material for everything from slapstick to romantic comedy to poignancy.

Free to operate independently of consequences and to gather information on one Feb. 2 that he can put to use on the next, Phil passes from terror to hedonism to megalomania to manipulative scheming to a gradual embracing of his situation.

By its final third, thanks to the ingenuity of the writing and direction, and to the supremely skillful shading of Murray’s performance, Groundhog Day has achieved something like profundity.

Without so much as a whisper of pretentiousness, Ramis, Rubin and Murray manage to suggest the rich potential of any given day, and to make the point that whether a day is good or bad largely depends on what we choose to do with it.