Have you ever been trapped by your own selfishness? If the movie Groundhog Day poses any existential questions, I’d like to think this is the one at the heart of it.
Not too long ago, I finally watched this Bill Murray classic all the way through for the first time (cue gasp track). My initial conclusion? This really is classic Bill Murray. His performance as Phil – hotshot weatherman, not the groundhog – is delivered with a meld of deadpan snark, wackiness, and depth in a way that only Murray himself can do it. Yet, in spite of my appreciation for the picture’s wit as well as its cast, I couldn’t help feeling almost as trapped as Phil while watching his escapades unfold. I didn’t know what to make of that. Does it help the movie or hurt it?
A little later, though, I asked myself a question: what if that trapped feeling is the whole point of the movie? Sure, it sounds like a stupid question, because that’s the basic premise, right? He’s caught in a time loop, stuck living the same day over and over. But there’s more to it than that. The more I consider that trapped feeling, and how it pertains to the protagonist and his initial character, the more I see something amazing happening in this film.
Phil is a highly ambitious weatherman and reporter charged with the task of covering Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney for the third consecutive year. This man feels like a giant among ants, eager to be rid of his small time gig and hit the big time. But when a blizzard leaves him and his crew stranded in the quaint little town, Phil soon discovers that Punxsutawney isn’t the only thing he’s stuck in. In a bizarre twist of fate, Phil is cursed to keep reliving his least favorite day of the year, in his least favorite place in the world, around the kind of people he can’t stand. Not unlike Phil the groundhog, Phil the weatherman is stuck in a monotonous cycle. But unlike the groundhog, Phil’s monotony is daily, not yearly. It might even be self-inflicted.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” In Groundhog Day, we observe two sides to this mantra coin when Phil decides to get what he can out of his weird situation. Realizing that nothing he does is tied to any long-term consequences, he sinks to a level of depravity that includes gluttony, robbery, womanizing, and a drunken car chase with the police. This is clearly the dark side of lemonade-making, and Phil doesn’t get too far with it. Despite being able to do anything he wants with no strings attached, each outing ends with Phil waking up to the disquieting truth that he can’t escape Groundhog Day.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then the definition of Phil is being the same person over and over and expecting different results. He inevitably drives himself insane. We could not receive a more apt visual representation of that progression than when we see Phil literally driving himself off a cliff in the first of many suicide attempts. Even taking his own life won’t stop the loop.
But maybe there’s a way out after all. Rita (Andie MacDowell), Phil’s kind, buoyant producer, embodies pretty much everything missing in Phil’s life. However, in typical Phil fashion, he misses the forest for the trees. This leads to countless failed dates culminating in countless slap takes, because everything is still about him.
While we’ll never live the same exact day over and over like Phil Connors does in this film, that doesn’t mean we can’t experience a similar kind of monotony. We occupy a culture in which independence, or the pursuit of it, has become its own religion. I should be allowed to be whoever I want and pursue whatever goal I desire without judgment or inhibition, whether internal or external. Left unchecked, that attitude can foster a kind of self-focus that prevents us from seeing the human beings who surround us. This can lead to a lack of motivation toward betterment outside our own personal goals/desires/vices or in relationships. So basically, very little changes. We don’t change, and therefore our impact on our environment doesn’t change. We’re in a rut, trapped in sameness. We don’t know how to influence meaningful change in our own lives or even understand why we should try. It all starts inside. If we don’t grow, then our lives in relation to the Big Picture will more or less stay the same, and the most important things in life will elude us. Day in, day out. Monotony.
Just when this idiot hits rock bottom, he simultaneously reaches the peak of his grandeur delusions. Egomaniacs are weird like that. The time loop has nullified Phil’s numerous suicides. In addition, he knows everything about everyone in town, and he also knows everything that will happen before it happens. Thus, in his delirious state, he concludes that he must be some kind of god. Wow.
But after more time spent with Rita, he might be starting to get a clue. He begins using his knowledge of the day’s events and the people in them to make lemonade that isn’t sour. He starts taking a genuine interest in people, and not just what he can get from them. Rita’s character has rubbed off on him, and he goes from one act of kindness to another. Phil finally understands that the world doesn’t revolve around him. He finally understands how to love.
Suddenly, it’s a new day.
Groundhog Day is an unusual marriage of comic madness and moral philosophy, but man, does it work. Within its own chaos, it celebrates the freedom found in moral growth and maturation. Conceptually, this is some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. In my opinion, one of the clever developments within the story is the fact that the subplot, a.k.a. the love interest, becomes the avenue through which Phil eventually learns to escape the cage of his own selfishness. He doesn’t find freedom just by capturing Rita’s heart, but by letting her teach him how to use his own.
I’ve been including ratings as part of my reviews for close to two years, but I know I’ve never awarded a perfect score. I think that changes right now. The longer I’ve let this digest, the more that practically everything about it just feels right. Groundhog Day is every bit as thought-provoking as it is nutty. A tight plot and effective character centricity only make it better. This is a good one, guys.