Not many movies can pull double duty. Excelling at one thing is hard enough. But the late Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day is a comedy-fantasy that finds the perfect harmony between the two genres. I can approach the film from either direction and derive great pleasure from it. The time-loop premise is a fun thought experiment, an invitation to daydream about the possibilities of infinite do-overs. It’s also an instantly grasped metaphor — a comedic exaggeration of the routines that make up a life, the sensation of being stuck in one place. That one movie could be at once so outrageous and so down-to-earth is fairly miraculous. On top of that, the rewatchability factor is unusually high, seeing how the very structure of the film, with all its repetitions, engenders comfortable familiarity. Groundhog Day hasn’t gotten old yet, and I wouldn’t hold my breath.
In his piece on the film for Slant Magazine’s House Next Door blog, Ali Arikan compared the unique predicament of Bill Murray’s Phil Connors to that of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. When I wrote about It’s a Wonderful Life, I treated its story as an inversion of A Christmas Carol. It follows that Phil is given something like the Ebenezer Scrooge treatment in this story. Although the source of the time loop is never explained, that just means that the people holding the strings are the filmmakers themselves, Ramis and his co-screenwriter Danny Rubin. Their intention is clearly to make Phil a better person, gradually chipping away at his disdain for his coworkers and small-town life. Nothing in Groundhog Day is as heavy as Dickens might have made it — Phil is a jerk at the beginning, but basically a harmless one. He doesn’t have to turn his entire life around, just learn to care about other people a little more. The stakes are relatively low, considering that Phil could be trapped in this purgatory indefinitely. As a result, the film has a looseness that allows it to explore just about every repercussion of its premise.
Calculating how many iterations of February 2 Phil lives through is probably a fool’s errand. How literally can we take his claim to have seen the fictitious movie Heidi II “a hundred times,” or his assertion that it takes six months to learn to throw playing cards into a hat? With no way of marking time, how could he even keep track of something like that? Of course, these are jokes and are not meant to be put under the microscope. Still, he has enough time to learn the town of Punxsutawney inside and out, he masters ice-sculpting and the piano, and he even memorizes every correct response on that day’s Jeopardy! (This very short scene is one of my favorites just for how much it implies. Here’s Phil Connors, self-styled celebrity weatherman, hanging out with some senior citizens at the bed-and-breakfast, watching Jeopardy! — for multiple consecutive days, apparently.) All this is to say that when Rita, the producer with whom Phil slowly falls in love (Andie MacDowell), describes his situation as “eternity,” she might not be that far off.
This is a wish-fulfillment scenario like no other. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to freeze time and learn a foreign language “instantly”? The artistic pursuits are more satisfying than the indulgence of the early scenes because, presumably, the former stay with him even when he gets out of the loop. This isn’t to say that there’s no dark pleasure to be found in exploiting the lack of consequences — driving on the railroad tracks and all that. Even the suicide montage, instigated because Phil genuinely wants the repetitions to stop and can’t think of any other way, carries the forbidden charge of experiencing every kind of death and then coming back to tell the tale. Phil survives it all and then claims that he knows what it feels like to be God. Later, confronted with a homeless man whose life he can’t save, he’ll find out he was mistaken. He still has some growing to do.
I find Phil’s character arc to be among the most persuasive and beautiful in any comedy, possibly any film, period. Bill Murray traces the arc to perfection, softening the character’s abrasive personality but never abandoning it altogether. Phil’s relationship to Rita, to Punxsutawney, and to the time-loop are roughly parallel throughout, pivoting from distaste to manipulation to acceptance and surrender. The telling moment comes during the initial flurry of dates with Rita. After sharing her favorite drink and reciting a French poem to her, Phil invites her up to his room at the bed-and-breakfast. She adores the quaint atmosphere and says so, but in the background of the shot, he rolls his eyes. Despite his protests to the contrary, he hasn’t even begun to love her at this point. He still has contempt for her whole worldview. This is just about gratifying his desires, testing his ability to orchestrate a “perfect” date. Rita’s strength in fending off his advances is exactly what he needs to get past the manipulation phase and start doing things for other people. Only when he gives up the all-consuming need to escape Punxsutawney does the way out finally present itself; ironically enough, by the time this happens, the place feels like home.
Much of the humor comes from Murray himself, naturally, as well as the great supporting cast, in particular Stephen Tobolowsky. (I compared the time-loop to purgatory earlier, but considering Phil has to meet an insurance salesman on his way to work every day for eternity, it might be more like another place.) What elevates Groundhog Day above many other comedies, however, is that the visual storytelling itself is constantly funny. The repetition of specific shots, notably used during the date sequence to signal, “Let’s try this again,” is terrifically effective. It might have been tempting to overuse that technique, but the movie also uses elliptical editing to mix things up and keep the viewer’s mind active. Performance, scenario and filmmaking all come together in the shot when Phil gives the mayor (played by Murray’s older brother Brian) the Heimlich maneuver, then smoothly moves to the next table and lights a woman’s cigarette.
This movie continues to resonate with me. It has just the right balance of sarcasm and sincerity, a willingness to explore true despair, however briefly, and an ultimately hopeful perspective on everything. The script plays with hackneyed ideas about jaded city folk and the small town hicks who inspire them with their purity, but it never bogs down into speechifying or overt dichotomies. Groundhog Day has its fun with stereotypes and then gently pushes them aside. By declining to identify any supernatural force behind the time loop, the film stays within the realm of simple human experience. It expresses a thought that should be familiar to countless people of various ages. To wit, I’m stuck here, but I have so much time.