Maybe this is a guy thing.
When Groundhog Day opened, a lot of men I know staggered out of the theater convinced they had seen a work glowing with philosophical resonance — a film that spoke directly and reassuringly to their lives. Their wives and girlfriends, on the other hand, just thought they’d seen a better-than-average Bill Murray comedy. And when the advance videocassette of Groundhog Day landed on my desk, guys in the office kept coming by and picking up the tape as if it were a talisman. One said it was the rare movie he could imagine owning, which is pretty weird when you consider that it consists of scenes of the same day played over and over and over again — hardly an experience that begs repeated viewings.
But then, I guess that’s how many men see their lot — and surely many women, too, although I’ve yet to hear from any who felt this movie on a level deeper than entertainment. The wonder of Groundhog Day is that it takes the same premise as the stentorian Falling Down — that we too easily lose our way in the frustrating grind of day-to-day living — and resolves it not with a grenade launcher but with understanding, invention, and humor.
That makes it sound like a particularly icky men’s — movement seminar, when in fact Groundhog Day buries its metaphysical concerns under the surface of expert farce. Phil Connors (Murray) is a Pittsburgh TV weatherman whose dead-end career blues are taking him past cynicism into outright hostility: He doesn’t like anybody, and nobody, including his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott), and his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), likes him. The team gets sent to Punxsatawney, Pa., to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities — just the sort of happy-happy Americana that gets Connors’ bile churning — and that’s where the cosmos throws him a curveball. Not only can’t he get out of this hick town, he can’t get out of Feb. 2: The day keeps endlessly replaying itself in all its mundane minutiae from sunup to sundown. What’s worse, he’s the only one who’s aware of it.
Living the same 24 hours for eternity — that’s a nightmare, but it’s also a curious kind of freedom, and Groundhog Day scrupulously examines those possibilities and many more. As the day(s) wear on into the hundreds and thousands, Phil passes through disbelief, exhilaration, boredom, anger, suicidal despair, and finally into a transcendent state of acceptance: It’s remarkably like the stages that terminal patients are said to experience (and, hey, what’s more terminal than life?).
Of course, the movie’s funny — there isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a belly laugh stemming from either the situation or Murray’s playing of it. Most charming are the middle days, when Phil explores the peculiar specifics of his situation. Because tomorrow literally never comes for him, his actions have no consequence; he can rob banks with impunity, learn everything about a woman one day in order to score with her the next, pig out on sundaes and never get fat. He boasts, ”I don’t even have to floss.” Eventually, Phil comes to know everybody in town — what they’ll do and when they’ll do it, but also who they are as people. In the process, he’s startled to discover that he likes them.
That’s a cruel hell, though, if no one’s there to share it. Groundhog Day reaches its saddest point when Phil finally convinces Rita — with whom he is now fully in love — of his predicament, knowing that in the morning he’ll be right back at square one with ”I Got You Babe” playing on the clock radio and geeky Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) waiting on the corner to sell him insurance. So, in his loneliness, Phil becomes an artist. He learns to play the piano and make ice sculptures; he spends afternoons at the diner reading great books. And eventually there’s nothing for him to do but start helping other people out of their day-to-day dead ends, through small kindnesses and larger favors. Isolated on his temporal desert island, Phil becomes purified.
Director, coproducer, and coscreenwriter Harold Ramis deserves much of the credit, but it’s safe to say that none of this would work with any other star than Bill Murray: His ramshackle grace admits seriousness without ever turning heavy. In a way, Groundhog Day remakes Murray’s 1988 Scrooged without the hollow, big-budget hugger-mugger. Both movies are about men trapped in their own poisons; both use time warps to force self-reflection; both take their heroes into the light of greater clemency, toward humanity in general and people in particular. But where Scrooged reeked of crass, high-concept calculation, Groundhog Day — with its really high concept — unfolds with a goofy elegance that feels like a tonic. On second thought, my friend was right about owning the video. This is a Day any guy would want to relive. A