Groundhog Day isn’t just a slow-burn comedy. It’s a slow-burn existential nightmare. And the movie’s genius lies in blending the two seamlessly without making much of a fuss about either one.
The legacy film of director Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the script with Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as prima donna Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors. Assigned, yet again, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Phil descends on the town in a cloud of smug exasperation (“People are morons!”). As punishment (perhaps?), he wakes up the next morning to find that it’s Groundhog Day all over again, as it will be the next day, and the next, and the next…
At first, Groundhog Day is a genial, acutely observed comedy about small-town media manners, where everyone lines up year after year to go through the same motions, while the cameras and pens come out to dutifully document it. But then we realize that the mindless “tradition” we’re witnessing is both a foreshadowing of Phil’s approaching time warp and a metaphor for the existential rut that all of our lives run the risk of becoming.
Not that the movie suddenly becomes heavy-handed. The genial way Ramis eases us into its larger implications is masterful. Murray’s first repeat day – begun, as they all will, with “I Got You Babe” on the clock radio – is largely played for comedy, as a bewildered Phil endures 24 hours of extreme déjà vu. The second day proceeds similarly. But by the third day desperation has begun to set in. Murray’s face as he awakens once again to Sonny Bono’s whine marks one of the transitional moments of his career. The lines of melancholy have begun to erase his youthful punk sneer.
The genial way Ramis eases us into its larger implications is masterful.
Oh, there are still laughs. Phil’s response is to go on a bender of action without consequences, taking two inebriated yokels along for the ride. “I don’t worry about anything anymore,” Phil proclaims, eating whatever he wants and happily punching out the annoying insurance salesman who approaches him every day. Yet this “freedom” doesn’t really grant him contentment, for it isn’t rooted in anything, or anyone.
Enter Andie MacDowell as Rita, Phil’s producer. Genuinely delighted by the Punxsutawney revelry, Rita recognizes one of the good things that tradition can do: build community. Yet she’s also an explorer of new things, evidenced by the fact that her area of study in college was French poetry. After Phil uses his time-traveling powers to seduce easier targets, he sets his sights on Rita. But even after countless attempts – captured in a clever montage in which Phil perfects his pickup line over a series of days – Rita remains unmoved. He may be growing to love her (the irony of his manipulation is that it requires the hard work of building relationship), but from her perspective he’s still just a new colleague.
Yet if Groundhog Day works on one level as a wise romantic comedy, its defining characteristic is still philosophical. It’s structured, largely, as the awakening of Phil’s consciousness, from selfish egomania to God complex to nihilism (Phil’s suicide attempts are both comic and disturbing, pointing the way for similar moments in the films of Wes Anderson). Eventually the narrative arrives at enlightenment, as Phil stops trying to control things for his own advantage and instead finds purpose in serving others, be it the shivering homeless man planted on the street corner or the kid Phil catches, each day, as he falls out of a tree (not that the brat ever thanks him).
This shift from selfishness to selflessness lies at the heart of many world religions, from the Zen Buddhism Ramis had embraced to orthodox Christianity. It speaks a deep truth, which is why Groundhog Day deeply matters – never mind that one of its defining images is Bill Murray driving a pickup with a toothy groundhog on his lap.