Bill Murray is the one veteran of the Saturday Night Live/SCTV axis who still knows how to enter into a giddy conspiracy with his audience. Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, John Candy, Chevy Chase, Martin Short, Rick Moranis these once-inspired jokers seem to have hardened into robotic parodies of themselves. (You sometimes get the feeling they're asking: Is it still funny when I do this? And this?) Murray, though, hasn't lost his impish nonchalance. After years of sarcastic clowning, his rubbery features are all a-twinkle. He acts with a what-me-worry shrug that can't be faked.
Murray's blithe smarminess pretty much carries the audience through Groundhog Day, a lightweight comic contraption that keeps you chuckling, even if it never quite crosses over the line into manic, rip-roaring screwball. He plays Phil Connors, a cynical TV weatherman who is dispatched to Punxsutawney, Pa., to do an annual puff piece on Groundhog Day. Once there, he finds himself trapped in a time warp, living out the same 24 hours over and over again. Each morning at 6 a.m., he is awakened by the strains of Sonny & Cher's ''I Got You Babe'' coming from the clock radio in his bed-and-breakfast room. Then he gets up and encounters the same roly-poly guy on the stairway, the same hostess offering him coffee, the same gawky joker who used to know him in high school, the same surprise blizzard...
As Phil soon discovers, he can do anything he wants: insult people, screw up his on-camera weatherman shtick, leap off the roof of a building. Nothing matters: At 6 a.m., he'll start all over, and no one in town will remember anything that happened. Murray, with his moist, el fake-o sincerity (he's the huckster as earnest puppy dog), is at his most delightful when he thinks he's getting away with something. The funniest moments in Groundhog Day come when Phil takes sneaky advantage of his predicament by, say, pumping a sexy woman in the local coffee shop for facts about her past and then, ''the next day,'' using the information to lure her into bed. What the movie lacks is the ingenious, lapidary comic structure that could have made these moments fuse into something tricky and wild (which is what happened in, say, Back to the Future). Groundhog Day has a clever premise, yet it's surprisingly flat. As directed by Harold Ramis, the routines don't stagger and build they're more like a series of isolated, catch-as-catch-can sketches.
And that's before the movie turns soft and squishy. It seems the one force Phil isn't able to exert much influence over is romance. After a few botched rehearsals, he lures his beautiful TV producer (Andie MacDowell) up to his room, only to learn that his trickery has worked too well: She falls for him so hard she wants to postpone lovemaking until a later date. Having tried everything else, Phil turns himself into the ultimate Good Samaritan, saving people's lives, becoming a cheer-spreading party guy, even learning to play the piano. Which may lead you to ask: What happened to Phil the slimedog charmer? Bill Murray certainly has what it takes to play a penitent yuppie, but it's not a role that looks good on him. He's far more appealing when he's out for himself. B-