For my fourth pick in this movie exercise (run by Hanspostcard at his site), I check off the “Sci-fi/Fantasy” category with one of my all-time favorites. And let me say I’m glad the two genres got lumped together, because frankly, I’m rarely a fan of science fiction. So rise and shine, fantasy lovers because it’s Groundhog Day!
For the unitiated, Groundhog Day was the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray celebrating – or perhaps mocking – the beloved February 2nd Pennsylvania tradition of seeing if the groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil) will see his shadow, and thereby prognosticating if spring will come early. Or as the star of the movie would put it, “one of the times when television really fails to capture the true excitement of watching a large squirrel predicting the weather.” In a nutshell, Murray, the master of deadpan comedy in that era, plays another Phil, Phil Connors, a cynical Pittsburgh TV weatherman. He’s assigned to cover the Groundhog event, with his producer Rita (played by Andie McDowell) and a station cameraman, the goofy and slightly dim Larry (Chris Elliott, at the time star of TV sitcom Get A Life). Connors hates the event, hates the small town and wants nothing more than to hightail it out back to the city. But, a snowstorm he didn’t see coming keeps him in town for the day. Then, through unknown black magic (hence the “fantasy” designation) he ends up trapped in Punxsutawney, reliving the same day over and over and over again. So well-known is the plot that “groundhog day” has become well-known as a euphemism for boring states of affairs where nothing ever changes. It was based on Danny Rubin’s first screenplay (he’d win a BAFTA Award for it) which was tweaked by SCTV-alumni Harold Ramis, which doubtless explains some of the ridiculous but hilarious comic bits.
Of course, Phil goes through all sorts of reactions to his recurring day – disbelief, anger, conniving manipulation, conceit (he tells Rita at one point “I am a god,” to which she expresses skepticism so he clarifies “Iam A god, I’m not THE God. I don’t think…”), industriousness (why not learn to play piano or ice sculpt with a chainsaw if you have all the time in the world?) and finally a mature realization of what a gift he has been given. He can do almost infinite good since he has the time and the knowledge of what will happen that day. If he knows bad outcomes, he can work on changing them for the better. The maturing weatherman falls in love and finally, by losing himself, or his ego at least, he finally finds fulfillment and happiness. He also learns that planning for the unknown only takes you away from being happy in the moment. No wonder entire books have been written about the philosophy behind the movie.
Surprisingly, Ramis and Rubin say they didn’t intend to write anything more than “ a good heartfelt, entertaining story.” University courses and religious sermons alike have since been dedicated to the philosophy behind the movie, which most curiously of all was apparently an aspect of the film the normally goofy Murray was especially anxious to play up. Murray’s said that the film speaks to him because it deals with people being afraid to change and “having the strength and knowledge to make a change when faced with the opportunity to repeat (or right) previous mistakes.”
Learning, evolving… Groundhog Day is right there with A Christmas Carol as a classic overnight bad-to-good redemption tale. Which is part of why it was brilliant and still resonates even as the cars and technologies seen in it seem increasingly outdated. But there’s the other part as well. It’s also there with other Murray classics like Ghostbusters as a simple comedy. Groundhog Day works because it’s just flat out funny. We fall on the floor laughing as we’re subtly being preached to. No matter how many times I see it, I still laugh at Phil’s changing reactions to Ned (his insurance-selling old schoolmate), or him lazily answering every question on Jeopardy to the amazement of everyone around him. Not to mention Phil the Groundhog driving… “don’t drive angry!”
Mindless comic fun that actually has an alter-ego as a remarkably deep philisophical statement on the meaning of life. Either way, Groundhog Day works for me. I give it a rare five out of five woodchucks!