Bill Murray's humor is one of my guilty pleasures and Groundhog Day (1993) is a high watermark. He’s a hoot as the surly, self-consumed weatherman Phil Connors. Given the chemistry between Murray and Andie McDowell (Rita), Groundhog Day wins on its merits as a romantic comedy. But under the hood, there's a lot more going on here.
Of course, I like the "Phils.” In addition to the Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, there’s Phil Connors who works in Phil-adelphia. Groundhog Day hits multi-Phil status; since the name means "lover," irony hints that a good story is about to unfold.
Weatherman Connors is required to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in sleepy little Punxsutawney, PA. He views the annual event as trite news and beneath his dignity.
A fantasy angle emerges early: Due to unseen (and unexplained) forces in the movie, Murray begins to relive February 2nd repeatedly - maybe forever. No other character in the film experiences the mysterious "deja-vu;” it’s his personal purgatory!
Connors begins experimenting with the rules that govern this strange, repeating warp in time. He learns the primary rule first: Nothing matters. When the 6:00 a.m. alarm clock begins to play "I Got You, Babe," Connor's actions in the previous day seem to carry no consequences. A bit of dialogue from the movie says it best, as he tries to explain his plight to Ralph, a local ne'er-do-well.
Phil: 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.
By the end of the story, Phil Connors will have lived out - and out-lived - his every possible reaction to this fate. He will have exploited the people of Punxsutawney, manipulated them, stolen from them and kidnapped the groundhog. He’ll have committed suicide in multiple creative ways. He'll have fallen in love with Rita, and tried a hundred ways (always failing) to win her heart.
Ultimately, he'll have weathered all five stages of Kubler-Rosses' grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and…wait for it…acceptance.
It's at the final stage - acceptance - that Connors begins to wonder how he might use this "time" in Punxsutawney to develop himself and serve others. Suffice it to say that when Murray's character comes to life, the results are beautiful. Groundhog Day is the B side of It's a Wonderful Life, and cinema worth watching.
Of the ideas packed into this odd little movie, the essence is in Phil and Ralph's dialogue.
On some level, we’ve all felt:
1) “Stuck" in one place
2) Each day seems the same and
3) Nothing we do appears to matter.
Phil's experience is not unique; we're all born captives in Groundhog Day. Some are tempted to exploit others, live dishonestly, or seek pleasure above all. Some make gods of our dreams or talents. Some experience anger or depression, while others simply grind it out one day at a time.
A few, however - like our weatherman - encounter a life-changing truth. It’s when Connors experiences a flash of new life that he finds hope and direction. That flash doesn’t just alter his behavior - it transforms his identity. If you watch the movie again this month, you might discover an unscripted deja-vu; for me, it’s a pop-culture doorway to Jesus’ teaching that we “must be born again.”
That all said, if connecting the ridiculous with the sublime is a stretch too far this February, it’s okay. But I’ll bet we both agree it’s a terrific flick.