"Groundhog Day" (Columbia) is my movie recommendation for Lent. No, it's no dull sermon, something you have to endure with a sour face, but a first-rate vehicle for Bill Murray to change from a smug, self-centered misanthrope to a lover of humanity in general and Andie MacDowell and Punxsutawney, Pa., in particular. No substitute for prayer and fasting, but a reminder that every day you get a new chance.
Murray plays Phil Connors, an obnoxious TV weatherman who thinks that he belongs on a major network and that having to go to Panxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day Festival is a terrible trial. His witty cameraman (Chris Elliott) and Rita, his patient new producer (Andie MacDowell), try to coax him to abandon his cynicism and come to dinner with them, but he prefers to continue his stream of insults and preserve his isolation.
Fortunately for us, Phil doesn't get back to Pittsburgh after the festival: A blizzard he didn't predict forces him to return to the local bed-and-breakfast, and when the clock radio wakes him at six next morning, it's Feb. 2 again. His bed-and-breakfast proprietress repeats the well-intentioned greeting we'd heard before. A former classmate, now an insurance salesman, insists again on delaying Phil on his way to the festival, and in his rush to get away, Phil again steps into a huge puddle - and we laugh even more than we did the first time.
Many of the gags that grow out of "Groundhog Day's" time-trickery may be adolescent - when Phil realizes that his actions will have no consequences, he pigs out on high-cholesterol food and drives a car on the railroad tracks into the path of an oncoming train. But director Harold Ramis keeps everything moving, and "Groundhog Day" gets better as it goes.
Murray is genuinely funny when he's being outrageously antisocial, but a remains believable when he begins to realize he's being given a chance to change and is tired enough of the eternal return to want to change.
As things get more serious, the fun builds, too. Drawing on what he's learned about Rita from his many earlier (canceled out) Groundhog Days - e.g., she majored in 19th-century French poetry - Phil almost convinces her that he's a perfect soul mate until his residual self-centeredness makes her realize he's just feeding her a new line. Suddenly, he's getting slapped - as the antisocial person must be in comedy - and will continue to be generally humiliated until he gets it right.
Having enjoyed the way Murray earlier delivered insults, I was impressed at how convincingly he became a good guy, though Andie MacDowell might motivate any heel's reformation.
Groundhog Day keeps Phil in Punxsutawney so long that he becomes the one best able to anticipate and help out in a whole series of local crises. His rehabilitation even includes learning to play the piano to impress the romantic Rita. In so doing, he also impresses his piano teacher, who compliments him on reaching an extraordinary level of competence after only one lesson. By that time, of course, Phil has learned humility and explains his quick mastery in genetic terms: "My father was a piano mover."
I start with a prejudice in favor of John Sayles ("the Return of the Secaucus Seven." "Matewan") not only because he writes his own scripts but because he works on limited budgets and chooses subjects that transcend box-office formulas. The good news is that his new movie, "Passion Fish" (Miramax), is making …