Groundhog Day (1993) – Directed by Harold Ramis – Starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Brian Doyle-Murray.
The pleasant irony of GROUNDHOG DAY is that rewatching the same movie over and over again never gets old, unlike reliving the same day over and over again gets old for Phil Connors inside the movie. GROUNDHOG DAY is one of the best Bill Murray vehicles we’ve got, and one of the most rewatchable movies around. Every time I watch it I get sucked right back in to the story. It’s one of those movies where knowing all the lines somehow makes watching it even better.
Phil Connors is a perfect Bill Murray vehicle. He’s a Pittsburgh weatherman, successful but not extraordinarily so, which allows him to have an ego but not to big time very many people. Despite being a weatherman for a major city’s nightly newscast, most people don’t seem to know who he is or aren’t overly impressed by it. He gets to be successful enough to think he’s a bigger deal than he is, which is perfect for Murray’s caustic attitude.
The true genius of GROUNDHOG DAY is that it takes the dour feeling of the mundane, everyday existence that many people feel and exacerbates it through science fiction. There’s a scene in the film where Connors, feeling trapped by having to live the same day over and over again, laments his case to two working class Joes in a bowling alley. He asks them to imagine how awful life would be if every day of their life played out exactly the same; for Connors, of course, success allows him to have a life full of different experiences and to feel good about himself, but these two regular guys already feel like every day is the same day. It’s telling that we see them in the morning at the diner and then later at the bowling alley, their lives marked by what seems like routine – not only do they have to wake up every day to perform the same job, the inference is that they’re regulars in their off-work hours, too.
Connors is forced to live Groundhog Day over and over again, and director Harold Ramis does an outstanding job of using the repetitive nature of the days for both comedy and drama. While GROUNDHOG never becomes maudlin, it doesn’t shy away from the shifting moods Connors experiences during his seemingly eternal damnation. Ramis uses the quick advancement of days (concentrating on a singular scene or moment) to help build momentum, and intercuts this with elongated scenes that are most important to Phil.
The mood is always kept relatively light, with Phil in a state of not-so-quiet desperation. His shifting moods echo those of the rest of us who might feel like we’re trapped in the grind – there are moments or periods of time when you feel really good because you find something new in the routine to occupy your thoughts and others when you feel incredibly low because whatever highs you might have are always temporary in the face of the similarity of your days.
GROUNDHOG is also a rather clever film in terms of playing stereotypes versus individual personalities. Everyone in this film is marked as a type until Phil gets to know them. Over the course of the film, both seen by us and taking place off-camera, Phil gets to know seemingly everyone in town.
Which brings up the question – why does the calendar eventually roll over into a new day for Phil? The easy answer, of course, is that it’s because he’s proven himself to be a good guy who wins true love with his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell). His final day in town sees him as a selfless individual who runs around helping everyone, but why do we think this is anything more than Phil’s latest phase? He’s used this eternal repetition to get laid, to to get rich, to kill himself … he’s been happy, depressed, deranged … why is Selfless Phil any different? Why are we to think this isn’t just another phase? And why does the film reward Selfless Phil?
Well, it’s because the film wants to enforce the idea that being selfless is the right way to live. If you do that, after all, everyone likes you and Andie MacDowell wants to date you. But what if it was something else?
The film doggedly doesn’t tell us who or what is responsible for life being stuck, as Phil (and thus the movie) is more concerned with what is happening instead of why. Phil does see a shrink about what’s going on, but the shrink is completely useless. He never goes to visit a holy man or scholar to attempt to discover what’s going on. He simply deals with the physical reality of what’s happening, meaning that some mornings he runs from Ned (Stephen Tobolowsky), some mornings he talks to Ned, and some mornings he punches Ned in the face. (Every time I see Tobolowsky, wherever it is, I instantly hear Murray saying, “Ned? Ned Ryerson?” and then see him clocking Ned in the face.) On the final Groundhog Day, it’s revealed that Phil has bought all sorts of life insurance from Ned, which leads me to my supposition that GROUNDHOG DAY is a much darker movie than the tone of the film indicates.
What if Phil’s life doesn’t become unstuck because he’s selfless? What if Phil’s life becomes unstuck because the town has finally gotten everything out of him it ever could?
On that final day, we see Phil selflessly giving himself to the townsfolk. He saves a boy from falling out of a tree, saves a man from choking, buys insurance from Ned, and crafts a Groundhog Day report of such eloquence that all other news cameras have turned to him. At the night’s celebratory party, seemingly everyone wants to thank Phil for something he’s done for them. He’s gotten to know just about everyone and become a positive force in their lives. What else is there for him to do?
I’d like to suggest that a second possibility for how to read the ending of the film is much more sinister than Phil simply becoming selfless. Perhaps the town of Punxsutawney has been holding Phil here against his will until he has served the town’s interests. What does Phil say to Rita at the end of the movie as they walk out of the bed and breakfast?
“Let’s live here.”
Knowing that Phil has been assimilated into the town, Punxsutawney lets time move forward again. It no longer needs to keep Phil trapped because Phil has succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome and embraced the town he once shunned. Phil has convinced himself he now wants to never leave, after perhaps multiple lifetimes of not being able to leave. The skills Phil learns – playing the piano, learning foreign languages, becoming familiar with great literary works – suggests a far longer period of time in Punxsutawney than the film shows us as definitely having happened.
This interpretation makes GROUNDHOG DAY a bleaker, but more powerful film. Where The Matrix indicates that your life is someone else’s construct that you’ve been unknowingly hoodwinked into believing, GROUNDHOG DAY argues that it’s your own willingness to buy into the grander narrative that “saves” you. Unlike The Matrix, GROUNDHOG DAY also allows both interpretations to be equally true. Phil really could be rewarded for becoming selfless, but it’s telling to me that all of his selfless acts benefit the same people: the citizens of Punxsutawney. We don’t see Phil correcting his past sins or connecting with people he’s once wronged (except for Needlenose Ned), but rather becoming a servant to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, in a place he doesn’t like coming.
I love GROUNDHOG DAY. It is, without question, one of my all-time favorite movies. I love the idea that, given enough time, we can all become good people who are willing to help others.
But there’s this stray tickle in the back of my brain that says there’s a darker side to the idyllic quaintness of that groundhog and the town he calls home. And if that’s the case, then GROUNDHOG DAY just might be the single greatest horror movie ever committed to film.