Tuesday, August 11, 2020

GROUNDHOG DAY Is A Genre, And I’m Okay With That


During the last several months , one movie has been brought up a lot during the pandemic: GROUNDHOG DAY. Obviously this is because many of us have been quarantined since March, and it feels like we’re repeating the same day over and over just like Bill Murray’s character, weatherman Phil Connors, in the 1993 Harold Ramis comedy classic.

In the 27 years since its release, GROUNDHOG DAY’s popularity has grown as it has become shorthand for overly repetitive situations (it was even referred to as such in a speech by President Bill Clinton in 1996), an Award-winning Broadway Musical, a video game, and, most importantly for our purposes, a genre. 

One early example is Tom Tykwer’s excellent 1998 thriller RUN LOLA RUN. While it would be wrong to say that the German director’s movie is indebted to Ramis’s as it has its own themes and vibe, it still belongs to the genre as it largely concerns seeing its protagonist Lola (Franka Potente) maneuver through the same series of events in different ways. In the frenetic film, Lola is racing against the clock to save her boyfriend’s life, and it seems that Lola is aware of her repeated predicament.

Other GROUNDHOG DOG-styled thrillers followed including PRIMER, SOURCE CODE, DAY BREAK, and a number of less memorable movies, but the one that stands out from the crowd was Doug Liman’s 2014 sci-fi action film EDGE OF TOMMORROW (terrible generic title that was marketed on DVD/Blu ray as LIVE DIE REPEAT). The movie features Tom Cruise playing against type as a cowardly Army Major who gets caught up in a time loop while fighting aliens.

With the help of a superb Emily Blunt, also playing against type as a tough as nails Special Forces soldier, Cruise’s character evolves into a fighting machine and conquers the day just like you knew he would. EDGE, or LIVE, is a clever take on the GROUNDHOG DAY genre with an over-active inventiveness that makes it never feel like a retread.

Not as successful, but still entertaining, is Christopher Landon’s 2017 horror comedy mystery HAPPY DEATH DAY. Set at a college in New Orleans, Jessica Rothe wakes up to find herself reliving the day she was murdered (her birthday) and having to figure out who killed her so that the time loop will stop looping. At one point, GROUNDHOG DAY is referenced by her would be boyfriend (Israel Broussard), who’s stunned to hear that Rothe’s protagonist has never heard of the film (or Bill Murray either). HAPPY DEATH DAY is a fast paced, and fun throwaway, but it really didn’t need a sequel, HAPPY DEATH DAY TO U (2019).

After a brief theatrical run, a movie premiered this summer on Hulu called PALM SPRINGS, starring Andy Samberg, and Cristin Milioti, which applied the GROUNDHOG DAY blueprint on a rom com largely taking place at a wedding. One difference this time is that Samberg’s character is already in the infinite time loop when the story begins. Milioti gets trapped in the loop with Samberg, but she is more determined to get out of it, while he mainly downs beer after beer and makes slacker-minded wisecracks. 

This is another movie which finds ways to go in different directions with the premise, and is a fine, funny addition to the GROUNDHOG genre. It may be as disposable as HAPPY DEATH DAY, but it’s an amusing diversion that I enjoyed watching on a recent depressingly repetitive night under lockdown.

On the television front, many shows have done GROUNDHOG DAY-themed episodes including Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, Fringe, Xena: Warrior Princess, Star Trek, Stargate, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mindy Project, Charmed, and many more. But the 2019 Netflix series, Russian Doll, gets extra kudos for making a whole series out of the Déjà vu device. 

Natasha Lyonne (who co-created the show with Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland) stars as a New Yorker who keeps getting killed then finding herself back in a friend’s bathroom at her 36th birthday party (like HAPPY DEATH DAY, the repeating day takes place on the protagonist’s b-day). 

As the cynical, exasperated Nadia, Lyonne makes for a compelling character, and the NYC hipster scene is a perfect backdrop for the variously changing situations. Glad to hear that Russian Doll has been renewed for a second season.

So GROUNDHOG DAY is definitely its own genre, and I for one think that’s a good thing. Folks who might complain that its cementing a formula that will become more and more predictable, I would argue that there are many formulas that have been overdone and yet still stand. Sure many of them suck, but every now and then some new creative juice is injected into them and the form becomes fresh again.

The time loop premise of Ramis’ comic masterpiece (co-written by Danny Rubin) is a flexible one with as many infinite possibilities as there often are time loops in the premises themselves.

The cherry on the top of the cake is that it was just announced that GROUNDHOG DAY will be resurrected as a TV series. The funny thing is that the project is planned as a sequel to the 1993 taking 30 years after the original. The only cast member that’s been announced so far is Stephen Tobolowsky, who played the annoying insurance agent Ned Ryerson the first time around.

Here’s hoping the producers of the TV reboot will capture at least some of surreal spirit and hilarious humor of the original. If not, it looks like we’ll have infinite alternates for time after time to come.

More later...

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