Seeing as Wednesday was Feb. 2, I thought I would take a look at the immortal Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” for this week’s column. I know the film isn’t quite 20 years old yet, but I thought I would break my rule just this once. Promise.
“Groundhog Day” starts off as a fairly standard screwball comedy, but slowly reveals the power just below its surface. I’m sure most people know the film’s premise: a jerk of a weatherman played by Bill Murray becomes trapped in a time warp where he is reliving the same Feb. 2 over and over again. When the film was released, I remember appreciating it as a solid, funny comedy, but as years have past, I’ve come to appreciate its deeper implications. It’s one of the few films that is equal parts laugh riot and existential parable.
I’m sure a lot of people like it simply for the laughs, or for the goofy premise, or for Murray’s hilarious and touching performance. There is a lot to like about this movie, and its appeal seems to stretch across the generations. A lot of families I know keep the film as a personal favorite.
It’s such an enjoyable film that it’s easy to miss its deeper reflections about existence. One of the film’s best scenes comes just after Phil the weatherman has lived the same day four times in a row, and he’s drowning his sorrows with a couple of drunks at a local bar. “What would you do if every day you woke up in the same place and every day was exactly the same and nothing you did mattered?” Phil asks irritably. “That about sums it up for me,” says the drunk on his left.
It’s reflections like these that give “Groundhog Day” its universal quality — how many days do we each feel like we are stuck in some endless pattern with no hope of breaking the monotony? How often do you see the same people saying and doing the exact same things? The film’s premise is unavoidably cynical in one way, but strangely perceptive and hopeful in another; in using the time warp as a metaphor for the human journey, director Harold Ramis gently considers what a person can learn from living the same day over and over, and how the experience can change them for the better.
As the film opens, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate for this kind of predicament than Phil Connors (Murray). Phil works for a small news station out of Pittsburgh, reads his weather reports with textbook apathy and is frustrated by his lack of big time success. He is surly and rude to just about everyone he meets, never missing an opportunity for a good jibe at someone’s confidence. Another actor might have tried to layer in a level of irony or sweetness for the character, but Murray can’t make him nasty enough.
Phil makes his way to Punxsutawney, Penn., on Feb. 1 for the Groundhog Day festival. The town is the home of the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, who famously emerges each Feb. 2 to see whether or not he sees his shadow. Phil hates the festival, derides the locals as hicks and points out that the groundhog resembles a rat. He’s accompanied on his trip by his beautiful, kind producer, Rita (Andie McDowell), and their cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliot), who both shake their heads at Phil’s relentless hatred.
Phil wakes up at 6 a.m. on Feb. 2 in his room at a local bed and breakfast. The day starts with a series of mundane-enough events; Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” awakening him on his clock radio, an encounter with an old classmate (Stephen Tobolowsky) who wants to sell him insurance, stepping into an icy puddle. After completing their broadcast, the crew load into their news van for a trip back to Pittsburgh, but a blizzard shuts down the road. They are forced to stay in Punxsutawney for another night, to Phil’s total dismay.
He wakes up the next day and the same events unfold, and then the next day, and then the next day. Phil is the only one aware of the time pattern; everyone else just goes about their day as if yesterday never happened. Their actions won’t change unless he alters the script, which presents the film with a fun scenario: What could you do if you knew what people were going to do and say beforehand?
Phil starts to have fun with the situation. We see him rob an armored car simply by memorizing the guards’ movements and buy a Cadillac with the money. His predicament also comes in handy with women; he gets information from a woman in a diner (Marita Geraghty) one day and then uses it to flirt with her the next. His eyes soon land on Rita, who McDowell gives a luminous, angelic quality. She’s the sweetest person Phil has ever met, and he tries to win her by learning her likes and dislikes and creating the illusion of the perfect man.
This doesn’t work, and Phil enters a dark period of anguish and repeated suicides, all of which land him back in the same bed at 6 a.m. the next morning. Then, after a while, he tries a new course: he starts to use the pattern to help the people around him. Slowly, we start to see Phil turn into a better man.
It’s hard to imagine the film being as good as it is with anyone other than Murray. I hate to imagine this material in the hands of someone like Adam Sandler, mugging his way into comic disgrace. Murray has always communicated a kind of quiet detachment from those around him, and he uses that quality beautifully with Phil. He may be a total bastard, but we sense it comes from a place of deep frustration and an inability to connect with others. Through the time warp, he starts to understand the people around him and his place among them.
As sentimental a journey as Phil takes, the film never becomes soppy. There is never some big epiphany moment where Phil suddenly understands what he is supposed to do. His change is gradual and subtle, and Ramis lets the audience observe without trying to manipulate them.
There’s plenty to take away from the film. One obvious influence is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey has to glimpse a world without him in order to appreciate the preciousness of his life. In “Groundhog Day,” Phil learns that no matter how monotonous life is, there is always something beautiful peeking out that you may have missed before.
Golden Oldies will run the first Thursday of each month. If you have any suggestions or possible titles to look at, please contact me at 270-887-3237.
Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237