Part-Time Review: Groundhog Day (1993) - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Part-Time Review: Groundhog Day (1993)

*Groundhog Day is a prestigious member of my Film Bible  

Groundhog Day is an all-time great comedy that features the best Bill Murray performance of all-time and a surprisingly moving, insightful, and Christian perspective on the meaning of life. The film identifies the sad nature and scope of our human brokenness in Phil and explores how grace and selfless love are his only exit from an existential death spiral. Heavy stuff for a comedy right? Thankfully, the film is able to balance that with the "can you believe this is happening to me?" condescending but hilarious smarm of someone like Bill Murray. It turned out to be a perfect casting choice by director Harold Ramis who would get nearly every major choice in this film perfectly right.

Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-centered and mean-spirited weatherman for a television station in Pittsburgh. Along with his producer Rita, Andie MacDowell, and cameraman Larry, Chris Elliot, Phil must head down to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to do a remote broadcast for Groundhog Day. Phil hates the assignment, hates the town, and makes it known to his colleagues. He slogs his way through his Groundhog Day duties, tries to escape Punxsutawney, but is forced to return due a bad blizzard. When he wakes up the next morning, Phil is presented with Groundhog Day...again. Something mystical has happened and Phil is forced to relive the day over and over. How will Phil handle it? Will he ever be able to escape the cycle?  

Groundhog Day may not be the first movie to feature a "time loop" gimmick, but it's easily the best use of it. The loop gimmick provides our story (really a fairy tale like character study) a perfect structure to identify and address Phil's character issues step by step. Bill Murray's Phil Connors begins the film a self-centered jerk - someone unable to truly love others because he can't ever see past his own needs and desires. Groundhog Day, the holiday, is when Phil the groundhog comes out and if he sees his shadow it’s a longer winter. See the connection? It's almost so obvious it becomes easy to miss. The film has used the groundhog day tradition as a metaphor for Phil's brokenness. The basic concept here is that as long as Phil Connors continues to see his own shadow (not see past his own needs and desires) he will continue in this repetitive hell (that's an insight of its own right there!). The promise here is that once he's able to get past his own shadow, a spring (or-rebirth) will take place. Will Phil ever recognize this problem and how will he be able to get past his own shadow?

The choice to wake up Phil each morning at 6am with the turn of the clock and a radio message is inspired. Is there a better symbol of the tyranny of time for the contemporary man than the alarm clock? That iconic radio message each morning sets up the key question for Phil Connors each day, “Will Phil come out and see his shadow?”  Yeah, it literally says that folks. This is classic fairy tale storytelling and I love it. The first major section of the time loop is Phil's initial confusion and horror of going through the same conversations and moments as the original day. Murray plays the confusion and frustration perfectly here. When he tries to explain to Rita, to doctors, and to psychiatrists, no one (of course) can really understand his situation.

Once the shock and confusion wears off, Phil realizes that the “no consequences” nature of the time loop allows him to indulge almost every selfish impulse he has. We get several pleasure binge sequences with Phil randomly sleeping with women, eating as much as he wants, driving recklessly, mocking policeman, stealing money, punching out people he doesn’t like, buying fancy cars, dressing up as Clint Eastwood and taking prostitutes out to the theater. Some of it is fun to witness as it’s all in good nature, but it takes a darker turn when Phil begins using the time loop concept to learn things about women and trick them into bed. They don't need to be anymore graphic, but the viewer realizes just how insidious one could be with this concept if they wanted. The shadow of our selfishness looms large and is hard to escape. As long as Phil is in his own shadow he interprets everything by how it can fulfill him and his desires.  He is simply unable to enjoy all the goodness that is in front of him: the beauty of the small town, the joy of the community, the lovely bed and breakfast hostess, the niceness of the colleagues he works with (Rita and the cameraman Larry), and so many other things he'll realize later.

There's a great exchange that sums this obliviousness up perfectly where Rita says excitedly, "You're missin' all the fun! These people are great! Some of them have been partyin' all night long! They sing songs 'till they get too cold and then they go sit by the fire and they get warm, and then they come back and sing some more!" and Phil responds condescendingly, " Yeah, they're hicks, Rita!" It's the perfect embodiment of Phil's selfishness that is masked by a genuine humor and why I call this the ultimate Bill Murray performance. Few people can pull off smarm in such a way that you clearly recognize it as mean, but still can’t help but laugh because from his perspective, it’s witty and true. When things begin to change that same smarm turns into a more charming and playful wit that only someone like Murray can dispense with seeming ease.

When the value of Phil's pleasure binges dry up, Phil turns his eyes to producer Rita, played charmingly by Andie McDowell, and he begins to use his time loop advantages to try and woo her with the perfect day. This isn’t one of those comedies that throw set pieces or jokes at you. Instead the comedy comes largely from the clever execution of the time loop concept and Bill Murray’s characterization. All of those comedic strengths come together in the sequences with Murray crafting a perfect date, trying over and over, taming his sarcasm, but also turning on the charm. The catch to it all, and its one of the genius features of the film, is that while Phil is being very clever here and seemingly unselfish to work so hard, we all know deep down that it's creepy and manipulative; she's an object for Phil's fulfillment, it isn't true love. Phil’s shadow continues to loom large even in these actions – it’s all still part of his empty pleasure binge.

When Phil ultimately strikes out with Rita an interesting exchange takes place. Rita says, "I could never love someone like you. You only love yourself."  Phil's response is, "That's not true. I don't even like myself." Oof, it’s a funny comment, but it’s a deep and cutting insight: one of the reasons the shadow of our selfishness looms so large and is so prison like is because of our inability to love ourselves. There’s a revealing comment Phil shares with Rita that underscores this, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” Somehow that line resonates with me as an older man now than when I watched it as a teenager. There is an element of self-loathing over our failures and our regrets, a loathing of our selfishness that turns the shadow into a self-reinforcing spiral. That's exactly what happens next, a bitter and rejected Phil now wakes each morning with existential dread. We get a series of sequences where Phil seeks to end his life – the first one being his stealing of the groundhog and driving Thelma and Louise style over a cliff. The scenes are largely played for laughs, but like most of the movie, there's a heartbreaking underlining here. If Phil is unable to love himself and truly love others, what meaning is there in life at all? 

So how can Phil get out of his own self-reinforcing shadow? What does the movie have to offer to us here? The film tips its hand from Rita (she always delivers the clarifying lines to Phil - she's called an "angel" by Phil afterall) while Phil’s eating away at the diner, "The wretch, concentred all in self, living, shall forfeit fair renown, and doubly dying, shall go down, to the vile dust from whence he sprung - unwept, unhonored, and unsung. Sir Walter Scott." It's after this comment that Phil begins to humbly share his secret, his suffering, with Rita aand she graciously and mercifully listens to him. The key here is that Phil isn't sharing his secret to manipulate her, he's recognizing and confessing where his shadow-led life has brought him. Rita indulges him kindly and after spending a day together (not overly manipulated for perfection or with the end goal of sex in mind) the two are laying on the bed together trying to stay up until 6am and Phil whispers to Rita, "I think you're the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life. I've never seen anyone that's nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you... something happened to me. I never told you but... I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don't deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life. Rita."

In terms of story, it's Phil's honest and humble confession met by Rita's grace and kindness that breaks the cycle. From here out, Phil’s life is revitalized, and he sets about making himself a better person. He’s grabbing coffee for his workmates, indulging strangers in conversation, learning languages, becoming a musician, quoting poetry, and making ice sculptures. There’s a beautiful turning point when Phil spots an old homeless man, he used to walk by everyday and not think twice about, shivering in the dark. He brings him in to the hospital and he passes away. Phil’s realization that he’s been dying under his nose every single day is heartbreaking and marks a giant shift in Phil’s ability to recognize the suffering in others and care for it. In this phase, Phil becomes a kind of protector of Punxsutawney, catching kids falling out of a tree, fixing flat tires, performing the Heimlich on choking patrons, and performing on the piano for a dancing crowd. The more Phil exits the shadow of his own existence, the more he can find the meaning in serving and loving others. There’s an interesting sequence where at the end of a party they host a bachelor’s auction and Phil is thrust up there with the town’s women all voting on him and Rita pretty much giving up everything she had in her pocket for Phil. The message here seems to be that as Phil has begun to love others without expectation of return, he has become immensely lovable. He spends the night with Rita, simply content to be and to be in love and give love. He wakes up the next day with the "curse broken" - he has no longer seen his shadow and the new life of spring is on the arrival.

This is my favorite realization of the film: Phil's shadow was not broken by his own efforts. He did not will himself out of it - that was impossible to do. It began by honest and broken confession that was met simply with grace and kindness. Rita's love broke through like light into his darkness. It was Rita's grace that encouraged him to become someone more deserving of love and more giving of love. In other words, one cannot will themselves out of selfishness, but an act and attitude of grace and kindness from another to our undeserving selves can break the cycle. If you can't see Christian parallels here, then let me point them out a bit - Rita is clearly a Christ-like figure here. I'm not saying the writers intended Christian parallels, in fact the universe of the film is quite intentional to be Godless and therefore more of a humanistic take, but that doesn't mean they can't stumble upon truths that Christianity have proclaimed for a long time, right? How can we overcome our innate and self-reinforcing selfishness? The Christian scriptures call us to love others because God has first loved us! When we humbly confess our brokenness and recognize it was God who took the initial step of grace and love to approach us in our selfishness through his son Christ, and we experience the Spirit of God there is a powerful re-birth. We all seem stuck in the monotony of daily life here and wake up faced with the question, "Will you see your shadow?" or will you choose to live outside of it? This film is a great reminder that there is an empty and repetitive hell to those who stay within the shadow and a glorious new life to those who challenge it.


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