Take 71: Groundhog Day
In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week… we’re doing a replay of Take 71, Harold Ramis’s indelible Groundhog Day. As always, there will be spoilers.
This movie is an old favorite of mine, and you don’t have to look any further than the man, the myth, the legend, Bill Murray to understand why. If he ever signs up to do a Shia Labeouf like project, I will be the first in line buying tickets to the show. Murray and writer / director Harold Ramis do something unusually impressive in Groundhog Day by capturing the spirit of the sad clown and forcing him to confront his existential anxiety with more than just cynicism and scorn. It’s hard to tell whether the substance of the film is mostly tragedy with joy forcing its presence into the spotlight, or if comedy is center stage and sadness trims the outer edges of the scenery. Regardless, this film demonstrates why those two faces of storytelling can never be extracted from one another and that the most compelling narratives dash them together in unexpected ways.
When we first meet Phil Connors he is forecasting the weather and immediately we understand him as a man who looks primarily to the future, as well as a man who has an attitude problem. There’s a blizzard moving in and he predicts that it will bypass their region, just as he doesn’t foresee interference in the plans he’s hatching immediately following a detour to Puxatony P.A. His aspirations include getting a national meteorologist gig and shaking off the dust of Pittsburgh, as well as the people there. I think the best word to describe Phil is unpleasant, he’s quick witted and entertaining for sure, but not the kind of man you’d want to go on vacation with. “People are morons,” he states with such indifference that it comes across as almost more pitiful than insulting. He is isolated, and cannot get out of his own way long enough to just embrace the charm of the day, the town, the people, his life.
The basis behind the whole weird groundhog event is that if it’s sunny outside, the groundhog will see his shadow and scurry back into his burrow to hide through another six weeks of winter (I don’t get the logic of that one either). I love Ramis’s decision to name the lead character after a rodent who emerges from hibernation in search of his shadow in an effort to predict a changing season. Puxatony Phil and Phil Connors have parallel existences; they are weathermen (weatherhogs?) who are isolated from their peers, scared of their silhouettes, and content to hide from their present while waiting for future, warmer, months. It’s so perfect that I really wonder what spurred the conceptualization of this film; did Ramis begin by wanting to write a film about a man in purgatory living the same day over and over again? Or was he just really over thinking the darker thematic elements of the hokey “holiday” and it led him to this story? Either way, I think Ramis and I would have had a lot to talk about if we ever met at a bar, and the threads of that spiritual / philosophical quest for significance are delicately woven into the film with such ease that it is an omnipresent theme that somehow never distracts the viewer from the sad comedic hero.
In recent years, watching Groundhog Day has taken on a little too much relatability for me to view it as exclusively hilarious. The movie is, after all, about the grind of daily living, a concept that was foreign to me when I first watched it as a child and everyday felt like it would more than likely contain a new and thrilling experience. There’s something wonderfully 90’s and grungy about Groundhog Day, as if it were written in response to the Gen X sullenness infecting the youth of America as they all stumbled simultaneously into their quarter life crises. Like Kafka’s Gregor in Metamorphosis, there’s no apparent reason for the disruption in Phil’s time space continuum — there’s no curse from a stranger or a gust of wind passing at just the right time, there’s no indication WHY this happened so there’s no clue as to how to fix it. And also like Gregor, Phil, as ornery as he is, has a working class hero quality to him. The corporate life is a daily struggle for many of us who feel like we’re going through the motions, living through days that are indistinguishable. When Phil opens his eyes to Sonny Bono crooning “I got you babe” morning after morning there’s almost a sinister underbelly to the song about devotion and commitment — it’s a reminder that monotony accompanies consistency. When Phil sadly opines to the barflys, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, everything was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” and they say that that pretty much sums of their lives, the applicability is undeniable to those among us who feel like drones that have surrendered our own autonomy.
As Phil realizes that he is trapped in Groundhog Day indefinitely he flashes through the phases of acceptance. After a brief bout of denial, he eventually reaches out to Rita for help, and visits a doctor and a psychologist, before accepting that even if he has lost his mind, he will not be able to find it hidden somewhere in that day. Then, like a teenager on rumspringa, he embraces the no consequences hedonistic existence. Naturally, he starts by trying to sleep with the most attractive women in town and eating lots of junk food. This is where his reality diverges from the metaphor and he has the opportunity to live out all of his fantasies without fear of retribution. However, he is uniquely beholden to his past self and restricted by his daily expiration hour. He cannot erase or transform the man who insulted and cajoled everyone he encountered, he can only affect his present as he runs on the hamster wheel.
When Phil says, “You make choices and you live with them,” this simultaneously does not apply to him, since there is no tomorrow, and applies most strongly to him, because he has no power to progress past or rectify those past choices.
I wonder if Kierkegaard would have liked Groundhog Day, with all of its existential explorations into the meaning of life and the gift of possessing free will. Phil tries for what may have amounted to months to sleep with Rita, always eventually tripping over his inauthenticity as he neared the finish line. Then, after succumbing to depression, he tries to kill himself in just about every way imaginable. After attempting to save the life of the homeless man he meets in town over and over with no success, all of the pieces appear to fall in place and Phil realizes that while it’s true that nothing he does will amount to anything, if nothing matters anyway, life is better when you’re good to the people around you.
The meaninglessness of his life reveals the larger truth about all of our lives, stated most economically by Ned Ryerson, insurance salesman, “it’s all one big crap shoot anyway!” Phil’s acceptance of his impermanence (I especially love his new found obsession with ice sculpting to illustrate this) elevates him from someone who was always looking to hide or run away, to someone who can accept their insignificance as liberation. It’s only then that he is released from hibernation, able to resurface from the burrow in the warmth of Spring, freed from the expectation of relevance.