Thursday, February 13, 2014

keep the talent happy

"Murray seems extremely comfortable playing an unhappy person," Chris O'Shea says in Vulture, 31 January 2013, "so it makes sense that most of the good dialogue in Groundhog Day comes when he is still being mean to people." As I mentioned yesterday, Roger Ebert, in his original review, says "Murray is funnier in the early scenes in which he is delivering sardonic weather reports and bitterly cursing the fate that brought him to Punxsutawney in the first place."

By the third act, the film isn't a comedy anymore, of course, or at least not the same kind of comedy that it was before. The first act is something closer to an 80s raunchy comedy (though not particularly raunchy), the second act a straight romantic comedy (with the obvious science fiction element, of course), the third act is something... else, a poignant, humanist fairy tale (that just happens to still have some laughs). Bill Murray manages all three quite well (though perhaps the first act better than the second, the second better than the third).

Mostly, though, reviews didn't make this distinction. Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, says "Murray is back in top form with a clever, varied role that draws upon his full range of talents. As in 'Scrooged,' he makes a transition from supreme cynic to nice guy, and this time he does so with particularly good grace... [and] Murray is as believable and appealing [in the romantic] moments as he is flinging insults."

Maslin may find Murray's Phil Connors appealing, but Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, says:

Though endearing is not an adjective often associated with the deadpan, abrasive, almost misanthropic style of humor Murray is known for, it is his comic hostility that makes "Groundhog Day" as agreeable as it is. Taking the bitter with the sweet is more than a venerable cliche, but it is also recipe for making sentimentality palatable on screen.

Bill Murray, by the time of Groundhog Day had a proven track record with his style of humor. That's why Ebert says (in his revisited review, 30 January 2005):

[The screenplay] is inspired crucially because [Rubin and Ramis] saw Bill Murray in it. They understood how he would be able to transform it into something sublime, while another actor might reduce it to a cloying parable. Ramis and Murray had worked together from the dawn of their careers, at Second City in Chicago, and knew each other in the ways only improvisational actors can know each other, finding their limits and strengths in nightly risks before a volatile and boozy audience. I doubt if Ramis would have had the slightest interest in directing this material with anyone else but Murray. It wasn't the story that appealed to him, but the thought of Murray in it.

Of course, I don't think Ebert's factually correct; Ramis was attached before Murray was, and probably didn't have him in mind just yet. But, the point still stands. Groundhog Day simply wouldn't be Groundhog Day without Bill Murray. There aren't a lot of actors who can, as Ramis describes Murray in the commentary track, can be "as sincerely bad as he’s sincerely good later." Gregory Solman, in Film Comment, November 1993, says Murray "eclipse[s] all the other comedic actors of his generation." He suggests that Murray's concurrent films releases in '93, Groundhog Day and Mad Dog and Glory, "witness the actor crossing the threshold to creating full-bodied characters with comic colorations." Jerry Adler and Ray Sawhill, in Newsweek, 8 March 1993, call Groundhog Day "a vehicle that allows [Murray] full range for his astonishing gift over exasperation" and "It is Murray's genius to make acting look easy." They quote Ramis, saying, "Bill represents a kind of shambling irony; he's heroic and disreputable at the same time."

(It is worth noting that Adler and Sawhill describe Murray's home life as "exemplary" living in "upstate New York town with his wife of more than a decade, Mickey, and two school-age sons." I actually intend to get to an entry about Murray's marriage at some point, for three particular reasons: a) Murray's next wife, Jennifer Butler, worked on Groundhog Day (though they had actually met on an earlier film) b) there's a chance that Bill Murray is both a much worse and much better (at the same time) person than Phil Connors, and I think that sort of thing will provide some insight into his performance here and finally, c) despite all my travel stuff recently, I haven't gotten into very personal stuff in this blog and I once argued that this blog was not just about picking apart Groundhog Day but picking apart myself (I thought that was in this entry but it's not). And, with divorce pending I have this painfully exhibitionist urge to talk about divorce.

Hell, I mentioned to Michael Schulman (the New York Times reporter I met in Woodstock) how this blog happened when it did (even if the idea had already occurred to me long before) because I was spending a lot of time alone last summer having moved into my own place, and on some level, I think I needed the structure of... this to hold some of me together. I live with my kids now and I'm doing well with grad school so far, and having a good time as a forensics coach, and I think I'm actually doing quite well lately. On a personal level, I mean. The divorce entry might be one of those things that never comes to be. Or maybe it will happen. I don't know.

If you're interested in my personal stuff, go read something like this entry in which, among other things, I explain why I'm doing this project. Or this entry in which I put this blog in context of my life for hypothetical future historians researching into my great accomplishments.

For now, I'm more concerned with Murray, and Murray the actor over Murray the man, and beyond these parenthetical paragraphs, I'm not interested in talking about myself.)

Ramis is also quoted by Bill Higgins, in the Los Angeles Times, 8 February 1993; "(Dan) Akroyd calls him the Murricane," Ramis says. "That's what people love about Bill. They see the anarchy in his eyes and know he's capable of doing anything." Just look at his grin here:

He knows he's getting away with something.

Perhaps he's just getting away with being Phil Connors. Originally, Danny Rubin didn't think Murray "had the acting chops to make it work" (Gilbey, 2004, p. 26, quoting an interview from punxsutawneyphil.com which I cannot find). But, he most definitely does. I've been asked more than once, after someone hears about what I'm doing, watching Groundhog Day every day, if I'm a big Bill Murray fan. While I've liked Murray since as long as I can remember, I wouldn't have called myself a "fan" before. But, just as I recently said it seems weird to me not to claim Groundhog Day as my favorite film after all this, it also seems weird not to claim myself a "big Bill Murray fan" as well. The best thing about him is probably that "Murricane bit mentioned above: at any given moment, Bill Murray looks as if he can erupt with anger or crack a joke (and often he manages to do both at the same time). As Ryan Gilbey (2004) puts it in his BFI critique, you can "discern a rumble of something dangerous beneath that crust of indifference. This man look[s] like he might really do some damage if he could ever be bothered to get out of his pyjamas [sic], clear away the three-day-old pizza boxes, brush his hair, find his keys..." (p. 27).

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to watch and memorize all of Bill Murray's movies and TV appearances so I can know them as well as I know Groundhog Day.

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