A man wakes each morning to find that absolutely nothing has changed and that he's doomed to live the same day over and over until further notice. Sound familiar? If any film was custom made to suit the Covid-19 lockdown, it's Groundhog Day, which stars Bill Murray as an obnoxious TV weatherman forced to endure the exact same day in a small Pennsylvania town until he learns the error of his ways.
Meantime, he's driven mad by the numbing monotony of knowing exactly what's going to happen in a parallel universe where even love has no meaning, because progress made with the woman of his dreams (Andie MacDowell) is instantly forgotten.
In recent weeks, The New York Times and the Daily Telegraph in the UK have run remote watch-togethers of Groundhog Day that have only revealed what we all already knew - that the 1993 comedy is a little masterpiece, a perfectly pitched romcom that bears comparison with the very best 1930s and '40s screwball comedies.
And any film that manages to push its title into the popular lexicon must have something special going for it.
Its director, Harold Ramis, died in 2014, leaving behind a formidable body of comic work that included Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, Analyze This, National Lampoon's Vacation and Stripes.
But Groundhog Day was far and away the best thing Ramis ever did and he knew it, living long enough to see it become as much a staple of the Christmas TV schedules as It's A Wonderful Life and Scrooge.
In fact, Groundhog Day is, in ways, a reimagining of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with Murray's character Phil Connors the rogue in urgent need of a supernatural corrective. Instead of earnestly didactic ghosts, he gets the same day served up to him again and again, a mind-numbing treatment that turns out to be equally effective.
This startlingly original film began its long life in the mind of Danny Rubin. He is now an English lecturer at Harvard, but in 1990 was a budding screenwriter who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to make his mark. His first script, Hear No Evil, would eventually be turned into a very bad film released to a chorus of boos in 1993. But while sitting in a cinema one afternoon, Rubin came up with the bright idea of a man who lives the same day over and over and, in the process, acquires wisdom.
Cannily, he decided to set his moral tale on February 2, date of a then little-known northeastern American holiday called Groundhog Day, in which a hefty rodent emerging from its burrow will predict a clear spring or six more weeks of winter, depending on whether it can see its shadow.
Rubin reckoned this might make the film a recurring seasonal favourite, but he cannot have known it would become so closely associated with Christmas.
In early versions, the screenplay had a voiceover, a laborious explanation of the reasons for the time loop, even a corresponding time loop in which Andie MacDowell's character Rita would be trapped. But working with Ramis, Rubin honed the script into a tighter comedy that threw out any extraneous science and made a better vehicle for the deadpan sarcasm of Murray.
Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton had both turned down the role before Murray accepted it, and while it's possible to imagine both those fine screen actors playing Phil Connors, they would have done so in a very different film. Ramis had worked with Murray before on Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters, and knew how the brilliant but notoriously volatile comic actor liked to work.
Murray's Phil is a wonderfully loathsome, self-centred, petty man. He is condescending to his co-workers, refers to himself as "the talent", and arrives in the idyllic country town of Punxsutawney charged with contempt for the local "rubes". He's an egotistical weatherman at a Pittsburgh TV station and plans to cover the Groundhog ceremony as quickly as possible and leave. But a heavy snowstorm traps him in the guesthouse his producer Rita has booked him into. When he wakes the following morning and hears the exact same song on the radio, he realises it's Groundhog Day all over again.
One of the cleverest things about this film is that the supposed science of the whole thing is totally ignored, allowing the audience to just settle back and accept it. When he realises he's trapped in the same day, Phil goes through various stages of anger, denial, nihilism and acceptance. Wisdom will take a long time coming and, meanwhile, he uses his new-found immortality for low purposes: for instance, finding out as much as he can about local women so he can charm them into sleeping with him.
As time goes by, however, Phil realises that the only woman who really matters to him is the sweet and wholesome Rita. He uses all his oily tricks to try and seduce her, but time and again gets a slap in the face. Her constant rejections lead him to despair: he starts drinking constantly, smoking, overeating and tries suicide by every means possible. It never works and every morning he wakes to hear the tinny strains of Sonny and Cher's I Got You Babe blaring out of his clock radio.
There's nothing else for it, Phil eventually realises he'll actually have to become a worthwhile person if he's to stand a chance of winning her heart and - perhaps - his freedom.
Phil's daily encounters around the town are beautifully orchestrated: he keeps running into an old homeless man he'll eventually try to save, catches a boy who always gets stuck up a high tree, sits in the town's diner mournfully watching everyone doing exactly the same thing. Most comically of all, he's accosted every morning by Ned Ryerson (brilliantly portrayed by Stephen Tobolowsky), a former classmate and chirpy insurance salesman whose desperation is palpable.
It's all very funny of course, but thanks to Murray's subtly grounded performance, there's more than a touch of despair beneath. When Phil lies in bed expressionless as Sonny and Cher start warbling away once again, he looks like a character in a Beckett play. How long did his ordeal last? Ramis reckoned about 10 years, others thought longer - long enough, at any rate, to become a quoter of French poetry and virtuoso jazz pianist.
Some commentators took all this very seriously. For Catholics, the film embodied the concept of purgatory, while Buddhists were especially keen on the film as it seemed to encompass their core tenets of rebirth and enlightenment. Whatever about all that, Groundhog Day is a truly great romcom, a charming, wise and very funny film.
It was made, though, in a fractious and unhappy atmosphere. Murray has fallen out with many colleagues over the years, but never more spectacularly than with Ramis. They had worked together before and were good friends, but on Groundhog Day, Murray was not in a good place: he was having personal difficulties apparently, and Ramis would later describe the star's behaviour on the set as "really just irrationally mean".
This culminated in a total breakdown in communication. Murray made significant and inspired script changes, but did so through Rubin and refused to talk to Ramis at all. After the film's release and despite its success, their friendship was broken: they hardly spoke for 20 years, and a reconciliation only came when Ramis was on his deathbed, at the instigation of Bill's brother Brian Doyle-Murray, who also appeared in Groundhog Day.
According to Ramis's daughter, Murray turned up to make amends bearing doughnuts and flanked by a police escort, and spent several hours with Ramis, who was by then hardly able to speak. His greatest film, though, speaks for itself, has stood the test of time splendidly and is a comedy for all the ages - especially this one.