February 15, 1993 5:42 PM EST

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GROUNDHOG DAY

DIRECTOR: HAROLD RAMIS

WRITERS: DANNY RUBIN AND HAROLD RAMIS

THE BOTTOM LINE: A man is forced to live one day over and over. A man is forced to live one day over and over. A man is…

SHE: Do you ever have deja vu?

HE: Didn’t you just ask me that?

For most folks, deja vu may provoke a momentary shudder, the creepy sense of having sidestepped into the twilight zone. For Hollywood, though, it is a guiding principle. The industry wants audiences to feel they have seen this ( thing before but don’t know where or when. Nearly every movie plot is a reprise of a story that has already worked. Recombinant familiarity means box office; originality is an orphan, subversive and suspect.

So let’s all cheer the emergence of Groundhog Day, a very original comedy about deja vu. A Pittsburgh weatherman (Bill Murray) visits Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of the Groundhog Day Festival, and finds himself forced to relive that particular Feb. 2 over and over, maybe forever — or at least until he gets it right. You might describe the film as Son of The Exterminating Angel (1963), Luis Bunuel’s surrealist movie prank about a dinner party no one can leave. But, not to worry, it ends up as It’s a Wonderful Life. And it has Murray, who, ever since his debut on Saturday Night Live in 1976, has been defining the would-be-hip U.S. male — the frat fellow with wit. The cool jerk.

Since TV’s birth, the funny weatherman has been the medium’s primal infotainment guy, a stand-up comic who uses lively banter and cute graphics to sell a lot of dull data about isobars. Phil Connors (Murray) is an ace at his job; he has the patter down pat. But he’s been working under his own high- pressure system too long. Off camera, to his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott), Phil is a captious creep. They would be thrilled to hear that he has been lost in space.

Instead he is trapped in time. He wakes up the next day to discover it is still Feb. 2. The same people he saw on Groundhog Day say the same things; the same unforeseen snowstorm blows into town; Punxsutawney is Brigadoon. Phil is angry, then reckless, then depressed, then suicidal. Yet he can’t die, he can’t escape. He can only change. So in the dozens of Groundhog Day replays, he puts his familiarity with the town to humane use: a child falls from a tree and, because Phil knows it will happen, he can catch the boy. “I’m a god,” Phil decides. “Not the God, I don’t think.” The real God, he muses, may not be omnipotent. “Maybe he’s just been around so long, he just knows everybody.”

Danny Rubin’s story is a clever metaphorical fable about moviemaking. Actors endure endless retakes of the same scene, with new improvs, trying to keep it fresh on the umpteenth take. Eventually, Phil knows the action so well, he can literally direct it: “A gust of wind. A dog barks.” And finally he is the writer, changing history by anticipating it. But this Chinese-puzzle-box movie has a deeper message inside. It says that most folks’ lives are like Phil’s on Groundhog Day: a repetition, with the tiniest variations, of ritual pleasures and annoyances. Routine is the metronome marking most of our time on earth. Phil’s gift is to see the routine and seize the day.

Murray’s gift is to make the appalling appealing. As the gonzo journalist in Where the Buffalo Roam, the blissed-out war veteran in The Razor’s Edge, the sadistic TV executive in Scrooged or the crazed hypochondriacs in Little Shop of Horrors and What About Bob?, Murray always imparted a blithe, loosey-goosey air of getting through life on his terms, in his own high style. He has the natural actor’s charm of making manners matter. He carries Groundhog Day with his uniquely frittery nonchalance and makes the movie a comic time warp anyone should be happy to get stuck in.

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