Monday, May 1, 2017

Groundhog Day: Angling for the Big Score

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1993 movie Groundhog Day, written by Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis, is a one-of-a-kind existential comedy with an inspired premise. Phil Connors, a misanthropic, self-involved weatherman, gets stuck in a time warp, reliving the same day over and over again. The day is February 2, and the setting of his private eternity is the tiny town of Punxsutawney, PA, where his bosses have sent him for the fifth year in a row, with a cameraman and an associate producer, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. (It’s the town’s pet groundhog, also named Phil, whose annual encounter with his shadow the northeast looks to in order to determine how much is left of winter.) Of course Phil’s being forced to face the same day over and over again has a point. After he’s gone through a hedonistic phase – recognizing that his actions have no consequences because all remnants of them are erased with the dawn – and a phase of despair – he stages a series of elaborate suicides to release himself from his fate, but they don’t take either – he finally moves on, past himself, to a love affair with the citizens of the town and an embracing of the repetition of the day’s events. He realize that he can use his foreknowledge to help those around them over small and large obstacles and give his own life meaning.

Like everyone I know, I love Groundhog Day. The new stage-musical adaptation, written by Rubin, with songs by Tim Minchin (Matilda), has received sterling notices and its box office is thriving, but I hated it from start to finish. And though it certainly didn’t have to be as insufferable as it is, I think, in retrospect, that there was no way to make it work without Bill Murray, who played Phil in the movie. Murray has turned into a fine realist actor (Lost in Translation, Hyde Park on Hudson), but the style he brought into movies from his SNL appearances in the 1970s was a laid-back hipster version of Brechtian acting that maintained a distance from his characters’ circumstances so that he could comment ironically on them. (The young Steve Martin perfected the same approach.) That commentary was always so funny that audiences loved him even when he played assholes like Phil and the tyrannical, money-obsessed network head Frank Cross in Scrooged – the 1988 update of A Christmas Carol that is my personal favorite of his movies. And when those characters underwent their transformations, you didn’t feel let down because he was constitutionally incapable of sentimentalizing them, and – unlike a crusty curmudgeon like say, W.C. Fields, who couldn’t conceivably have turned into anything else – his light touch and his slightly zonked bemusement left open the possibility of change. (It was partly the hip quality in Murray, who seemed to come to the idea of changing his life as if he were trying a new drug.)

But who else could play Phil Connors? Andy Karl, who’s taken over the role for the musical, is a talented musical-comedy guy – he was hilarious as Kristen Chenoweth’s narcissistic actor lover in On the Twentieth Century – but for the whole first act his character is just dislikable and for the whole second act he’s just sappy. The only part of Karl’s performance I enjoyed was the series of grace notes he improvised on his widely reported injury: having torn his ACL (on stage), he wears an elastic cast above and below his knee that is plainly visible as Phil hops out of bed in his boxers at the beginning of each Groundhog Day, and Karl gets some good jokes out of it, especially in the scene where Phil shows up at the local diner without bothering to dress and comes on to his producer, Rita (a perfectly adequate but unmemorable Barrett Doss). Everyone loves a trouper, and Karl’s insistence on playing the part under physical duress as well as his acknowledging his injury has probably made him the hands-down popular favorite on Broadway this season. But his portrayal of Phil didn’t give me much pleasure, for reasons that are out of his control; you can’t really blame an actor for not being Bill Murray. I hope the Tony voters aren’t so knocked out by his stick-to-it-iveness that it prompts them to vote for him over Ben Platt’s stunning work in Dear Evan Hansen.

Barrett Doss and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

One of the chief virtues of the Groundhog Day movie is its offhandedness: the episodes are tossed off like blackout sketches. It’s tougher to pull off that lightness in a big Broadway musical – Once acquired too much apparatus when it made the transition from the screen to the stage – but everything about this show, from Matthew Warchus’ staging and Peter Darling’s choreography to Rob Howell’s scenic design, is heavy enough to crush the wry, ineffable material, and Minchin’s lyrics, set to dreadful, synthetic-sounding melodies, coarsen it. (You don’t have to be prudish to cringe when Karl sings, “Suck my balls,” to express Phil’s response to the quaintness of the town.) Rubin has remained faithful to his screenplay for the most part; much of the dialogue will be familiar to those who’ve seen the picture. But he overenunciates the idea that Phil has to learn to appreciate time before he can be released from living the same day over and over, so the musical becomes didactic, as if the audience couldn’t be trusted to work out the theme for themselves. And Minchin has come up with not one but two numbers that proclaim that theme. The first is “If I Had My Time Again,” wherein Rita lectures Phil on the fleeting nature of time – so that, like The Girl in the stage version of Once, the story’s romantic interest moves into the role of his savior (a bad impulse in both cases). The second is much worse. We discover in the middle of act two that Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), the insurance salesman who dogs Phil on the street when he recognizes him as a high-school classmate, has lost his wife to cancer; he gets a big, heart-twisting ballad called “Night Will Come” that was almost enough to turn me into the misanthropic Phil from act one. (Minchin’s off-topic attempt to turn Nancy, the credulous young woman Phil uses his superior knowledge to manipulate into bed – here played by Rebecca Faulkenberry – into a character with a conflicted interior life in the second-act opener, “Playing Nancy,” is almost as egregious.)

Considering that the point of the story is that Phil’s vanity and superficiality and urban snobbishness have blinded him not only to the beauties of everyday living but also to the qualities of small-town folks, it’s peculiar that throughout act one the musical presents the denizens of Punsxutawaney as boobs. (If it were restricted to Phil’s point of view, Rubin and Minchin might get away with this attitude, but it isn’t.) There’s a baffling number, “Stuck,” where he goes to one “healer” after another – doctors, shrinks, practitioners of alternative medicine of various sorts – to try to deal with his frozen-in-time problem; every one of them comes across as an idiot, and there are so many of them that the writers seem to have forgotten they’ve set up Punxsutawney as a town so small that it has only one bar and one diner. I couldn’t make sense out of the set either, in which the town is represented by miniature houses crowded together along the perimeter of the stage and above it (where they’re upside down for some reason), hanging from the flies. This effect, which is strikingly ugly, might make some sense for a musical about slum living, but not for one set in bucolic small-town America. The people who put together Groundhog Day haven’t thought anything through because consistency is no more important to them than sympathetic imagination; all they want is a big fat hit. They seem to have gotten what they wanted, but it’s an opportunistic musical and it made me furious.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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