Harold Ramis’ 1993 existential comedy Groundhog Day has penetrated so deeply into the American cultural conversation that even people who have never seen the movie know what it’s about. Director Robert Schwartzman plays with the conceit of the endless time loop in The Argument, stirring in some misdirection and twists, and the result is a charming comedy that comes close to going off the rails before saving itself.

Zac Stanford’s script centers around the prickly relationship between Jack (Dan Fogler) and Lisa (Emma Bell), a 30-something Los Angeles couple. He’s an insecure writer, she’s a struggling actor, and they’re both on high-alert for any perceived slights about their talent. Jack is also crazed with jealousy over Lisa’s acting counterpart, Paul (Tyler James Williams), and this sets the stage for the central argument which will plunge the couple, along with a house full of uncomfortable guests, into a preposterous exercise in ferreting out the truth.

The set-up echoes such great dinner party films as Le Dîner de Cons and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Having gathered a small group of friends at their place after Lisa’s theatrical debut, Jack strives to create the conditions for a public and romantic marriage proposal. However, the unexpected appearance of Paul, his rival, puts the plan in jeopardy. It quickly becomes clear that Jack and Lisa aren’t the only characters consumed with their own neuroses. This is Los Angeles, after all, and everyone has a quirk.

The ensemble cast plays off one another well, with zipping outbursts and side conversations thrusting individual insecurities into the spotlight. Danny Pudi is a welcome presence, playing a calmer version of his detached weirdo character from the brilliant sit-com “Community.” As Jack’s literary agent, he seems to delight in watching the party devolve purely for entertainment value. His partner, Sarah (Maggie Q), seethes with contempt for the bickering antics of the others. Waiting for her to explode is one of the sly pleasures of the film. Paul and Trina (Cleopatra Coleman) are stewing in their own jealousy issues. The evening ends in disaster, with Jack spiking a freshly-baked pie into the floor and stomping off. It was not an evening anyone would want to revisit.

And yet Jack and Lisa have other ideas. Schwartzman keeps the story chugging along as the couple vows to recreate the evening in order to set things right. That no sane person would agree to return to the scene of the disastrous dinner party doesn’t seem to deter anyone, and yet the very same couples gather the next night–driven, it seems, by their own need to fix things. They proceed to re-enact the half-remembered dialogue and awkward interactions of the night before, inevitably making the same mistakes, compounded with fresh ones. The film gradually accelerates to montage speed, and risks losing its snap, but a fresh angle in the third act shifts the focus and introduces new dimensions of possibility.

The flawed characters are forced to confront their own selves, and that shifts the dynamics. There are some genuinely hilarious moments when hidden truths burst into view, particularly when Paul’s doppelgänger reveals his true self. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers end up treating these neurotic and self-defeating characters with a generous spirit, which inspires the viewer to identify with rather than disdain them. This is no existential time loop like that of Groundhog Day; rather, it’s a riff on the power of self-reflection. Would you want to go to a dinner party with yourself?

A charming comedy that comes close to going off the rails before saving itself.
73 %
Groundhog Night
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