Phil Connors: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
Ralph: That about sums it up for me.
You’ve seen it or, or you haven’t, or you’ve seen it, and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Or you’ve seen it, and you know exactly where I’m going.
Harold Ramis’s 1993 film Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as egocentric megabastard Phil Connors, a cynical weather man with disdain for only the whole of creation, who is trapped in a strange time flux and relives the same day over and over again.
The premise sounds corny, and when I first saw the movie at age 12 or so I wondered what the hell was going on with it. But it stuck with me. It’s like bookmarking a page that has a word you don’t understand and mean to look up, and then years later you either understand the word or have enough experience under your belt that you can figure out what it means. I love things like that. . . that you need to mature in order to understand.
Newsman Phil has to go to Punxatawney Pennsylvania to report on the verdict of Punxatawney Phil, the most famous groundhog in the US, on whether or not to expect more spring or winter. Each day is begun with the alarm clock playing Sonny and Cher’s ‘I got you, babe,’ and at first Phil makes the most of his situation–since everything happens the same way every day, through observation he is able to later manipulate situations to his own advantage, and uses this knowledge to rob banks, romance women, eat horribly, and generally sate his most base appetites. When he realizes the one thing he wants that he can’t have is Rita, he embarks on a journey of never-ending self-destruction: despondent about being trapped forever in a small town with no consequences to his actions, he throws himself off buildings and crashes cars or steps in front of trucks in the hopes of killing himself and escaping the hell that is a never-ending Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day was incredibly underrated when it came out–which is a shame, because it’s much smarter than the average crappy romance comedy/fantasy. There’s a key line that ties the whole movie perfectly together.
While attempting to romance the unwilling object of his affection, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, Phil screws up and draws her ire. She slaps him and asks if the whole day has been some some big ploy to get her to love him. He responds with the incredibly apt: ‘But I don’t even like myself.’
That’s the key part of the whole movie–Phil’s cynicism and misery springs from the fact that he really, truly hates himself, and therefore everything and everyone else in the world.
Here’s the interesting part, where the movie goes from a goofy romance-comedy to a brilliant character study; we get to see Phil really grow and change as a person. He starts out a childish, selfish douchebag, belittling anyone who shows him kindness and dismissing kind people as weak. As he begins to manipulate situations to his advantage, thus getting anything he wants, he realizes that this is boring. He attempts to woo Rita, meticulously researching her likes and dislikes and trying desperately to synthesize a personality that she finds attractive: studying French poetry, memorizing her favorite things, and asking her endless questions to get to know her better. Alas, she sees through his attempts for what they are: a facile attempt to fool her into liking him.
After she drops him, his despondence leads to the aforementioned many suicide attempts. He is truly, truly miserable now, in a hell of his own making.
Since being a selfish bastard didn’t make him happy, he decides to try going in the opposite direction: he becomes the town’s worker of small miracles, changing tires for old ladies, helping the helpless, etc. His crusade of selflessness includes trying to save an elderly homeless man from death, and here he really begins to evince the change: unable to save the man, he finally begins to understand what caring for others is.
Since he seems to have unlimited time, he learns the piano and reads classical literature, teaches himself too cook and other tasks he might have overlooked or been uninterested in previously. This intellectual banquet leads him to further realize how petty and mean he was before this strange phenomena happened to him, and his bad attitude is tempered and reshaped over the small eternity he spends on Groundhog Day.
A movie like this is bittersweet, because while it enriches the viewer, I can think of countless people who would benefit from the kind of psychological ‘time out’ that Phil experiences. Because that’s what it is – someone basically said ‘You sit in this corner and think about what you’ve done,’ except on a cosmic scale.
It’s only when Connors learns to love himself, and by extension other people, that he is able to escape from Groundhog Day.
I like Groundhog Day because it imagines that even the most cold-hearted bastard is capable of change, given the right amount of time and right circumstances. Murray is the perfect person for this role, since he knows how to portray someone both cynical and warm: after all, cynics are usually people whose soft hearts were broken early in life, and grow callous and cold in an attempt to prevent it from ever happening again. Having been a cynic and grown up around them, I know exactly what I’m talking about. Murray probably knows that or experienced it in some form himself, since he illustrates it so beautifully in his characters. Sure, he doesn’t have the world’s widest range, but he has what he does down to a science.
Groundhog Day is available on Instant Watch.