By Dennis Avery
Time, for better or worse, is all we have. Fortunately most of us have lots of it, so much of course that often we don’t know how best to use it all, or how we’re going to kill time until we can get out of this bus stop, or office meeting, or waiting room. But there is a small sadness in knowing, when we see each day go, that we’ll never see it again. We only get one chance to get it right. But what if someone never had to lose today, because today was all they had?
Many films have been made that speculate on the nature of time, exploring what might happen if we could travel into the future or the past, to change the course of history, or maybe just to find our own place in it. Perhaps no exploration of time’s effect on people is more direct, more uplifting, or more perennially relevant than Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin’s quirky, checkered, charming little “Robinson Crusoe” of the human soul, “Groundhog Day.”
Phil Connors just wants to get this all over with. As the greatest TV weatherman in Pittsburgh (just ask him), it is a complete waste of his talent to drive all the way to the cheery banality of Punxsutawney, Penn., just to report on the meteorological findings of a large, famous rat. There is a major network interested in him, after all. However, Phil soon learns getting out of Punxsutawney is one thing he cannot do, for, as anyone who’s heard of the movie knows, he will wake up to find, again and again and again, that he is doomed to repeat this go-nowhere, do-nothing day over and over and over, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Phil, a role that could have been fulfilled by no one but Bill Murray, is generally unimpressed with the world around him; very little surprises him, almost nothing makes him genuinely happy. His only real motivation in life is the benefit any given action will bring him; he’s basically a caricature of the abrasive, entitled, self-interested personality we’ve all encountered in others, and have likely all succumbed to at some point. And like any rational, self-interested adult, his reaction to the time loop is completely understandable; after disbelief, and aggravation, and bitterness, he tried to make the most of his predicament by endless self-gratification, after he grasps that since there’s no tomorrow, he can get away with anything he wants. But eventually this wears off and he begins another tactic for cashing in on the loop, by playing his knowledge of what happens next to accomplish the impossible through a thousand small steps. The possibilities are expansive, but again not limitless.
The film doesn’t pull punches. As soon as a new possibility opens up, Phil dives for it as fast as he can. When all the company a person has is themselves, they cherish experiences that occupy them so completely that they lose themselves in the experience, even if only for a moment. Again and again Phil grabs for such experiences, and at first he finds them in plenty—small pleasures and creature comforts that any sane adult in his place would crave, but sadly none of the happiness it gives him lasts. It slowly dawns that such an appetite feeds on itself, needing novelty and variety to keep it satisfied. And even if there’s no tomorrow, and no consequences, there’s really only so much Phil can do in one day in Punxsutawney, PA. Phil starts with well-founded beliefs in the rewards his self-centered lifestyle will bring; as the days wear on, we see him deprived of one after another after another of these, with nothing left to fill their places, and none of them go without a struggle. It’s only when he lets go of the belief that he really understands anything that he finds himself free to begin improving.
The screenplay by Danny Rubins and director Harold Ramis is easily the film’s greatest strength. Any close analysis would devolve into a mere synopsis because there are so few ways it could have been written better. The plot’s simplicity is such that we don’t realize at first when it’s moved beyond itself, the lines of the character’s struggle having been re-drawn and stood on their head. The story is deceptively intricate; how do we even categorize it? It’s a fantasy, but the only fantastic element is the illusion of memory; an explanation for the time loop was written, but wisely cut. It’s a comedy, but it doesn’t follow rules that comedies usually follow; it is very funny, and most of the humor is to cope with painful situations. But we usually see these painful moments multiply and crescendo as a comedy film develops, while here they fall away until by the end we’re smiling for completely different reasons. It’s a romance, but the boy would rather kill himself before becoming the kind of person the girl would fall in love with. It doesn’t start out as being about anything in particular outside its premise, and when it starts to, ideas hit their impact is all the stronger for that.
Others have already written at length about how perfectly suited Bill Murray is for his part, and they’re right, and how at the time this film was made his talents and ambitions as an actor ran higher and deeper than comedy alone. Since the end of the 90s he has both landed and nailed many parts with gravitas and dramatic impact, and the world is a wealthier place for that. All I would like to say is that, growing up, “Groundhog Day” was the first time I remember seeing him allowed to give more to a part than the deadpan charisma that first brought him fame. If the man were only good at funny, the entire third act of the film would fall flat, instead of being its finest offering.
Even though the movie is about Phil, it would cast much dimmer light without the efforts of its supporting cast. The screenplay asks a lot of Rita, portrayed radiantly by Andie MacDowell. She goes from bystander to straight man to semi-eccentric and back again, and she delivers on all counts; through it all she’s the same charming, disarmingly grounded Rita. We never doubt that each day is completely new to her, and Phil’s eventual transformation is more astounding to her than anyone. Chris Elliot performs dutifully as everyman-cum-creeper Larry the cameraman, and ultimately his work in the role is not without heart. Steven Tobolowski as Ned Ryerson is in a class by himself, and watch out for a young Michael Shannon (“An Education”, “Take Shelter”) in his film debut as newlywed Fred “Wrestlemania!” Kleiser.
The playful score from George Fenton turns with Phil through all his kaleidoscopic ups and downs, sliding from whimsical to disastrous to touching as needed, and benefitting indescribably from additions from Ray Charles, Sergei Rachmaninoff and, of course, Sonny and Cher. Pages could be written on the simple grace of production design, crowd control, camera work and editing, how our sense of place in Punxsutawney is gradually and coherently crafted without our noticing it. We believe in Phil’s conundrum because it all matches and feels right. Naturally the script has a knack for shifting the focus from one quirk to the next, but it’s clear a lot of patient work went creating an illusion of frozen continuity so real that it vanishes before us.
Admittedly, not all of the choices have aged uniformly well; for instance the opening tune “I’m Your Weatherman”, co-authored by the director, is adequate in tone but now feels a little forced. Larry’s small creepies haven’t gotten any less creepy over time, and Phil’s request for a cappuccino at his B&B no longer seems so snobbish (though his follow-up still sure is). But fans take the flaws in and love all equally as part of the package, and it’s hard not to be a fan of a film that gets so much right.
It should also be remembered that the movie doesn’t have all the answers; it never claims to. It doesn’t say the same transformation would happen to just anyone if they were stuck in Phil’s shoes. It’s tempting to over-apply the film’s message; after all no one is perfect. It’s impossible to be thoughtful and kind and versatile all the time. It’s easy to play superhero, if one is so inclined, when one already knows everything that’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s a struggle just to give kindness a kind return when we encounter it. Phil will certainly struggle to cope with normal life when he finally gets free, and the question is left open how well he’ll adjust to normal life, or how long his transformation will stick. But as the film itself points out, in the long run if you want happiness that lasts it’s best to be optimistic and just keep trying.
Dostoevsky once wrote “…in truth we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they knew it, the world would be paradise at once.” In its original context in “The Brothers Karamazov” this line is held up as a compass point to uplift the characters, inspiring allegedly satisfying lives of humility and generosity. I don’t know if Dostoevsky is right. I think the part about men not knowing it is just as important to remember as the first. Everyone is selfish. It’s built into our nature to do what we feel is in our best interest, what will benefit us the most. But even if the line isn’t necessarily right for all people in all times, it is a thought that can make one a better person if they act like it’s true first and worry about belief later.
“Groundhog Day” is a movie about philosophy disguised as a movie about a romance disguised as a “what-if” comedy romp with Bill Murray in order to get you in the door. Its punchline is that when a person is exposed to eternity, they are forced to let go of their ego, to concede that material pleasures are fleeting and unsatisfying in the end, and ultimately find that the only enduring happiness in life comes from doing their best to make others happy and not themselves.
The film is wonderfully entertaining, utterly believable despite its ludicrous premise, and manages to be instructive without preaching, or even stating its message aloud. This is what good fiction is supposed to do: it lies to us so convincingly, so efficiently, and with such sympathy that when it reveals its truths to us, we find them undeniable. Although Phil is changed before the end, he never really loses his selfish nature; if and when he helps anybody, we’re let in on the secret that he’s enjoying it, we can tell by the look on his face. In the end, the measure of whether or not he’s redeemed from his original flaws is whether he’s able to occupy himself so completely with the happiness he gives others that loses himself in experiencing their joy, even if it’s just a moment at a time.
So watch the movie. If you’ve already seen it, do your heart a favor and watch it again. Then think of something you can do for someone today, and be good to yourself by doing it.[divider] [/divider]
Dennis Avery is a law clerk living in the D.C. Metro area with his wife and two cats. He used to be a philosophy major, but they made him graduate. Although he has watched movies his whole life, he is hardly old enough to be sure what is good or not. His hobbies include reading, video games, and visual art.
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