It would seem that The Legionnaire‘s audience is on a little bit of a Bill Murray kick lately. Fine by me. There are a few movies on my list that I have been dreading (read as avoiding). Hence, I look at films like Groundhog Day (1993) as taking a deep breath of air, some last gulps of life sustaining oxygen for when I dive into the . . . er, other stuff. I promise to keep an open mind, for what that statement is worth. As for today’s movie, perhaps unbelievably this was my second time seeing it, my first time being only last summer. To reiterate what I said in my review of What About Bob? (1991), I consider myself the most lukewarm of Bill Murray fans. And while I feel Groundhog Day is funnier than most, I still do not find it as hilarious so many others. Do not get me wrong, it is a solid movie with a clever premise. I just do not laugh at the jokes as much the legion of Murray supporters do.
In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a vain weatherman working for a local news channel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has his ambitions set on moving up to national broadcasting, and he considers most of those he works with as beneath him. This is particular true when, for the sixth year in a row, he is sent with his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and new producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. After waking up, getting to the site where Punxsutawney Phil (the famous groundhog) emerges, and shooting his piece, they attempt to return to Pittsburgh. And not a moment too soon for the human Phil as he despises the small town. What prevents this trip and forces them to return is a blizzard that he had predicted would miss the area. After a desperate evening of trying to find something to do, Phil goes to bed . . . and awakens to Groundhog Day, February 2nd, all over again. This slowly dawns on him as he goes about the same activities he had already done seemingly the day before this one. It also turns out not to be fluke either as he makes it through that day, only to fall asleep and awaken at the same time and on February 2nd once more. This happens repeatedly, and we see him go through different stages of acceptance that something truly bizarre is going on. The central question he asks himself early on is what would you do if you were stuck in one place and nothing you ever did mattered? His first thought is that there were no consequences. As such, he embarks on a spree of drinking and driving, sexual conquests, and robbing of an armored truck. He next turns his attentions to wooing Rita, his sole intention at this point being to get into bed with her. Because that is not truly in her character, despite meticulously, day-by repeated-day learning something new about her and telling her that these are things he is into, his attempts to have sex with her prove unsuccessful and always end in him getting slapped. This triggers his next phase, as it truly seems to him that nothing he does ever matters, and that is suicide. However, even death cannot break the cycle because each time he wakes up on February 2nd at 6:00 am to the sweet sounds of “I’ve Got You Babe,” by Sonny & Cher. Once he finally realizes there is no escape, he decides to discuss everything that is going on with him with Rita, asking for her help. Doing so reveals to him that there is more to life than the trite pursuits that he had been filling his rerun days with for so long. He then begins to do right by what appears to be everyone in town. He saves a kid who falls from a tree. He performs the Heimlich maneuver on a man in a restaurant. He replaces a flat tire for a couple of old ladies. Perhaps the most poignant of these moments is the help he gives to an old homeless man (Les Podewell) who subsequently dies (more on that later). These all come to a head when Rita catches up with him at a Groundhog Day celebration in the town hall, and they all come up to him thanking him for his deeds as he and Rita try to dance together. Phil is already in love with her, having spent so many days getting to know her. For Rita, she needed to see that he was not the crass individual she initially thought, and she falls in love with him. This is seemingly what is needed to release Phil from his curse for when they fall asleep together (sex does not seem to be implied), they awaken to February 3rd. Hurray (Murray?) for happy endings!
At one point in Groundhog Day, Phil convinces himself he is a god. I appreciated somewhat that he made it clear that he was not the God, but a deity with a small “g.” He does so even though Rita reminds him that her Catholic education tells her that this is not possible. I like to think that this was also part of the reason that she did not give in to his advances. Still, that is not the Catholic lesson I would like to take away from the film. Instead, I would like to focus on his interactions with the homeless man. This occurs during Phil’s do-gooding phase. After handing the homeless person all the money in his pocket, Phil later sees the same old man clutching his chest and having difficulty breathing. Phil takes him to the hospital, but he later dies. Refusing to believe it, Phil demands to see the medical charts. The nurse gives him sage advice: sometimes people just die. In other words, it was the old man’s time. Initially, Phil does not want to accept this, and spends a few days trying to do want he can to prevent what he sees as an untimely demise. No matter what he does, Phil cannot stop the old man from passing away. Only God knows when our time will come, but it surely will. This is not about being prepared for that day, although it is good to be so. It may seem cliché, but prayer is really the best way to be ready for your end. Instead, this is about understanding that there are some things that are out of our control. I suppose that understanding comes with being prepared for death, but that is not the main thrust of the movie. Rather, Phil’s actions towards the homeless man are about learning that doing good is in itself a reward, and that you cannot always predict the outcome. All we can do is do our best. The rest is in God’s hands.
If you are looking for a good movie through and through, you can do worse than Groundhog Day. I do not necessarily recommend it as a comedy. Sure, there are some funny parts, and everyone remembers when Phil steals Punxsutawney Phil and lets the rodent drive a car. Such humor is a bit slapstick-ish to my tastes, and it typifies most of the laughs in the film. Yet, if that is your thing, then bonus. Otherwise, it is a great treatise on learning to be a good human being and all the rewards that come from that ideal.