Tag: Stephen Tobolowsky

Groundhog Day (1993)

Bill Murray lives the same day over-and-over again. It’s Groundhog Day!

Director: Harold Ramis

Cast: Bill Murray (Phil Connors), Andie MacDowell (Rita Hanson), Chris Elliott (Larry), Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Ryerson), Brian Doyle-Murray (Buster Green), Marita Geraghty (Nancy Taylor), Angela Paton (Mrs Lancaster), Rick Ducommun (Gus), Rick Overton (Ralph), Robin Duke (Doris)

Few films are so well known they’ve become a shorthand. But mention “it’s like Groundhog Day” to anyone, and they know exactly what you mean. That’s a tribute to the film’s brilliant concept – but also its superb execution. Never mind just comedies, this is one of the smartest and best films to come out of America in the 1990s, so good it doesn’t seem to have aged a day. Groundhog Day is an enduring classic and quite wonderful.

Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a misanthropic weatherman on a Pittsburgh news network. Every February, he is dispatched to the small town of Punxsutawney to cover “Groundhog Day”, an annual festivity where a local groundhog is used to predict whether winter will last six more weeks. Phil makes no secret of his contempt for the event, the town, its inhabitants and indeed everything else. After being trapped in the town by a snowstorm he failed to predict, Phil wakes up the next day – to find it’s Groundhog Day again! When the same thing happens the next day, Phil realises he is trapped living the same day in the small town over and over again – and no matter what he does during the day, he will always wake up in his hotel bed at 6am on Groundhog Day. What will he use the never-ending time for? Personal advantage? Or just maybe, becoming a better man?

Groundhog Day works because its concept is gloriously simple, and yet endlessly intriguing. Who can’t relate to the idea of a prolonged déjà vu? And anyway, don’t most of us feel at some points life is a never-ending treadmill (one of the town’s residents, asked what he would do, stuck in the same place every day where nothing you did mattered, replies “That about sums it up for me”)? Whole books have been written about the film’s philosophical roots – from Nietzsche to Buddhism – and the time loop’s duration. The film invites this because it keeps these concepts gloriously unexplained.

Imagine how much less powerful (and funny) the film would have been if Ramis had caved to studio pressure to either include a scene explaining why the time-loop was happening or providing a definitive answer for how long Phil spends in it. Hilariously, studio execs settled on a short period of time measured in months – others have gone for anywhere between decades to millennia. It’s certainly long enough for Phil to learn by heart the complete biographies of the entire town’s population, know the timeline of every event in the day to the second, and master everything from the piano (to Beethoven-like proficiency), to French and ice sculpting. There is a magic about not knowing the answer to these questions, that make the story brilliantly charming.

It also helps that the film remains, at heart, not science-fiction (which explanations would tip it towards) but a Capra-esque morality tale. The time-loop is, essentially, a second-chance over-and-over again for Phil to become a better person: to change from being a selfish misanthrope into a kinder, generous soul. That’s a story everyone can relate to, and becomes more and more heartfelt as the film continues (culminating in its uplifting conclusion). It also has the Capra touch of a heartless professional from the big city discovering (eventually) a warmth and truth in small-town America where the people are straight-forward and unaffected.

Which makes the film sound tediously feel-good. It escapes this completely because of three reasons. Firstly, initially Phil uses his new super-power of 24-hour immortality for what most of us would do – gain and greed. No consequences ever. Theft is child’s play when you know the exact second bank staff will be looking the other way. Easy to seduce a woman when you can ask her a series of questions on one circuit, then use her answers to pick her up on the next one. You can do whatever you want, confident the next day you’ll wake up in your hotel bed to I Got You Babe.

Even on his journey to eventual self-improvement, Phil only begins to change after exhausting all other options, including repeated attempts at suicide, to try and break the loop. And Phil, for all his charm, is not a good guy for a long time. His attempted seduction of producer Rita (a charmingly winning Andie MacDowell) over a never-ending series of first dates constantly fails, because no matter what happens, she eventually sees through his lack of decency (Phil’s attempts to recapture moments of spontaneous genuineness in later circuits fail completely).

Secondly, the film is brilliantly, gloriously funny – even with repeat viewings. Ramis’ brilliant shooting and structuring of the film focus on its repetition. We see the same shots and sets, hear the same music cues, the film is edited to stress repetition. Few things in comedy are as funny as anticipation and watching characters fly in the face of all the social conventions we deal with everyday. Seeing Phil’s different reactions to the same stimulus each time never fails to raise a laugh. Knowing the events almost as well as Phil, we eagerly await unexpected reactions. The script – by Ramis and Danny Rubin – is packed with brilliant lines, wonderful set-ups and is superbly structured. The first loop establishes all the settings and situations Phil will spend the rest of the film continually interacting with, and the film allows us to often be in on the joke with Phil (making us like him more).

Thirdly, and perhaps almost most importantly, the film could never have worked without Bill Murray in the lead role. For all the pull for Lost in Translation, this is surely Bill Murray’s finest performance, and stands comparison with the best work of Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy, laced with that classic Murray touch. There is no other actor who can present a character so grouchy, deadpan, cynical and selfish but still make us love him. And – for all the terrible things Phil does in this film – you never stop liking him. His comic timing is exquisite (his varying reactions from frustration, confusion, glee and despair at his predicament spot on) but he also taps brilliantly into moments of genuine heart, loss and despair. Murray has spoken of how the theme of redemption spoke very strongly to him – and he plays perfectly a man so selfish that only after he has exhausted all other eventualities – including death – does he start to become a better man. It’s one of the greatest film performances of the 1990s, and the film is impossible without him.

Groundhog Day is pretty much perfect. The town of Punxsutawney is presented to us at first much like Phil sees it – old-fashioned and twee, populated by well-meaning but dull residents – but over the course of the loop, like Phil, we learn to embrace it. It perfectly mixes a glee at breaking the rules and embracing your inner misanthrope, with learning to develop and improve. It’s both hilarious and heart-warming, with every scene a classic and every performance spot-on. It has a timeless (!) quality about it, and its focus on telling a rollicking good story, full of heartfelt emotion and fabulous jokes, means you can add as much or as little spiritual depth to it as you like. It’s a modern It’s a Wonderful Life that might even be better.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the road in Thelma and Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Detective Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen (Jimmy Lennox), Christopher McDonald (Darryl Dickinson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (JD), Timothy Carhart (Harlan Puckett)

Two people on the run, dodging the police and doing what they can to survive. It’s a well Hollywood has gone back to time and time again. But in most cases the people were either two men, or maybe a man and a woman (romantically involved naturally). It was unheard of to make that most masculine of genres, the outlaw road movie, into one led by women. But that’s what we get here, in a movie that has become iconic in more ways than one, Thelma and Louise.

Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough, independent-minded waitress. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a shy housewife, whose husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a jerk. With Darryl away for the weekend, Thelma and Louise head off for a weekend away together, to let their hair down and feel a bit of freedom. Unfortunately, disaster happens when Thelma flirts with a sleazy guy in a Texas bar (Harlan Puckett), who tries to rape her in the car park. Louise saves her – but guns the guy down. The two women now find themselves on the run from the law, terrified that no one will believe their side of the story. But as the women find themselves on the road, the experience changes them, with Thelma flourishing in an environment where she can make her own choices and Louise becoming more able to open herself up emotionally. But can they stay ahead of the law?

With a terrific (Oscar-winning) script from first-time writer Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise offers a dynamic and daring twist on the Hollywood road movie. By placing women at the centre of a story like this, a fascinating new light is shed not only on the law, but also on the culture of the American South. It also gives what would otherwise be familiar situations, a fascinating new light as two underestimated people are forced to prove time-and-time again how ahead of the game they are.

Ridley Scott directs the film with a beautiful, confident flourish. The John Fordian iconography of the West is a gift for a painterly director like Scott, and this film hums with the sort of eye for American iconography that only the outsider can really bring. The film brilliantly captures the dusty wildness of the West as well as the neon-lit grubbiness of working class American bars. It looks beautiful, but also vividly, sometimes terrifyingly real. Scott then, with a great deal of empathy, builds a very humane story around this, with two characters it’s nearly impossible not to root for.

He’s helped immensely by two stunning performances from the women in the lead roles. Susan Sarandon’s is perfect for the brash and gutsy Louise, not least because she’s an actor brilliantly able to suggest a great emotional depth and rawness below the surface. Louise is a women juggling deeper traumas – past experiences (its implied a historic rape) that leave her in no doubt that the justice system will not be interested in hearing about a woman’s suffering. It’s the hard to puncture toughness that softens over the course of the film, as Louise becomes more willing to explore her emotions and allow her vulnerability to show.

Particularly so as the lead between the two is slowly taken over by Geena Davis’ Thelma. This is certainly Davis’ finest work, her Thelma starting as a beaten down housewife, just trying to let her hair down in a bar, into a scared victim, a horny teenager lusting over Brad Pitt’s hunky JD then finally into a road warrior who discovers unimagined determination and resources inside herself, toting guns and robbing stores. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime part Davis seizes upon. She’s sensational and totally believable at every turn.

Placing these two women at the centre of a story like this puts the feminine perspective front-of-centre – and it’s alarming to think how little some things have changed. Can we imagine today that there wouldn’t be policemen and lawyers willing to blame Thelma – or claim she asked for it – for her near rape in a bar? Or that there wouldn’t be a fair crack of the whip in the system for Louise for gunning down an unarmed rapist? On top of that, the majority of the police tracking the two women (with the exception of Harvey Keitel’s decent cop – Keitel is very good in this) find it hard to take “these girls” seriously, finding it hard to imagine them being anything other than a joke.

Mind you the attitudes of men are laid bare at every turn. Thelma’s husband Darryl (a very good performance of selfish patheticness by Christopher McDonald) is a waste of skin, a man who can’t imagine a world where Thelma could be his equal. Timothy Carhart is all charm until Thelma denies him the sex he believes he was due for in exchange for a night if flirting and drunks, and promptly turns extremely nasty. The cops – gun totting with itchy trigger-finger – just seem to be waiting for an excuse to throw the ladies down. Even JD (a star marking early performance by a deeply attractive and charismatic Brad Pitt), who seems so charming – and proves the sort of generous and skilled lover Thelma has never experienced in her life – has no qualms about robbing the ladies of their life savings, leaving them hung out-to-dry.

Many men at the time complained (pathetically) about the presentation of men in this film (as if men haven’t had any films where they were sympathetically placed front and centre), but I think it’s a pretty clear judgement that women are not held to the same standards. Khouri’s script shows time and time again the casual sexism (and sexualisation) the women encounter – to the extent that when they finally confront (and pull guns) on the sexist, aggressive truck driver who has been following them for most of the film, you cheer along with them when they shoot out first his tyres, then his oil tanker. We’ve even had a warm-up with Thelma turning a tough intimidating cop into quivering jelly by taking control of the situation.

But that’s what this film is about – the unexpected taking control. Because this isn’t just a feminist statement because it puts women into a male genre. It does so by showing how few choices these women have in their lives before they take into the road and how liberating it is to be able to make their own choices. Because these characters have had all their choices made by men, from Thelma’s smothering marriage to Louise’s undefined past as a victim. And their futures are as much out of the control, likely to find themselves on death row for shooting a rapist. On top of all that, men continue to see them both as sex objects.

How could you not be moved by this? It’s why the films iconic ending carries such impact. These are women discovering they have the power to make their own choices and their own mistakes. It has an undeniable power to it. It’s a power that runs through the entire film, perfectly shepherded by Scott’s astute and sharp direction, with Davis and Sarandon superb. It will still give you shocking insights today into what life is like for women in a world still dominated by men.

More recently its writer and stars pointed out that the film actually ended up changing very little for women in Hollywood. There was no new wave of daringly different female-led movies, with “women’s drama” still mostly restricted afterwards to family drama and romances. There are still few exciting opportunities for female filmmakers. (And it’s a sign of the times back then that the very idea of a woman directing this feminist film was never even raised as a possibility.) Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise remains such an icon, because it’s still such a one-off. Either way, it’s a film that hasn’t aged a day since it was released.