The Timeless Groundhog Day

Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in “Groundhog Day;” Image: Columbia Pictures

Though Groundhog Day occurred earlier this week, we sure took our sweet time traveling back to that classic film of the same name. But since the hero had nearly all the time in the world, did we really have to rush?

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

On its face, Groundhog Day looks like a sweet comic fantasy. And then it hits you — and the more you think about it, well, the more it hits you. Certainly nowhere near as many times as sardonic Phil Connors (a brilliant Bill Murray) hits the alarm clock blaring the 6am start of the same day for a seeming eternity, but still …

In case you’ve been stuck in your own cryo-cave for the last 22 years, let’s travel back to the plot: Local Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil, his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) and newly hired producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) are sent to the small burg of Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day event. The festivities center on the most famous of chill prognosticators, one similarly-named Phil. But unlike the human version, this one is rather adorable — and even for a marmot, he seems to have a paw up on meteorologist Connors when it comes to the weather. After the groundhog makes his big appearance and sees his shadow, it’s announced that six more weeks of winter will ensue. And so Phil the groundhog returns back to his burrow while Phil the misanthrope returns back to Pittsburgh. That is, until a fierce blizzard — which Phil failed to predict — forces him and his crew to go back to Punxsutawney.

The under-the-weather weatherman can’t believe his misfortune at having to spend another night in a small-town dump. But this misfortune is a mere blip on the timeline of hell when, on Day #4 of Feb 2, a shocked and somewhat frightened Phil realizes that he’s stuck in some kind of nightmarish loop. He wonders, “What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”

Akin to the iconic five stages of grief, Phil experiences a multitude of reactions. He initially tries to get medical help. Then, realizing there are no consequences to his actions, he turns self-indulgent (food, alcohol, sex); playful (robbing banks, dressing up like a Spaghetti-Westernized Clint Eastwood); and ultimately suicidal. But no matter the mode of death, Phil is always alive and well at the next, unrelenting 6am.

It’s only when he stops fighting the curse that Phil begins to evolve. Having faked his way through life, his actions always furthering some underlying agenda, Phil ultimately has to learn how to shed his cynical yet protective mask and emerge, like his groundhog friend, from the hole where he’d hidden his humanity away.

Directed by comedy virtuoso Harold Ramis (1944 – 2014), and co-written by Ramis and Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day works its sly genius throughout. While we initially conclude that Phil is frozen in time, that’s not exactly the case. It’s everyone else who’s stuck into treating the day for granted, with their bodies at the mercy of the ticking clock. Whereas Phil, exempt from the vagaries of the physical, can flourish without interference. He becomes mindful that the day isn’t a redo but, rather, a “one more.”

And so he learns how to play the piano, carve ice sculptures, speak French, et al. He bothers to find out about every resident in town. And as his focus changes — from a self-centered egotist to a person engaged in the life humming around him — so does his heart.

Ramis takes Phil’s situation and, twisting it ever so slightly, yet still humorously, reflects it right back at us. Are we too involved in our own personal dramas, too narrow in scope, too dug in to our own burrows as it were, to emerge out and up into the light of this particular day? Today? Perhaps our only day? Unlike Phil, we won’t get a million more of them to improve on our imperfections; we may not even get a few. And given Harold Ramis’ sad, untimely death at the age of 69, the film’s onetime quiet, cautionary note increases in decibels every year.

It took Groundhog Day quite a bit of time (of course it did!) to garner multiple acknowledgements from the film community: In 2006, it was selected by the National Film Preservation Board for preservation in the Library of Congress; The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #27 on their list of 101 Greatest Screenplays Ever Written, and AFI ranked the film #8 in its Fantasy genre.

Groundhog Day‘s embrace by various religions makes it additionally resonant. Buddhist leaders state that the film nods to Samsara, “the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.” Christians compare the annual appearance of the groundhog to the resurrection of Christ, and some Catholics consider the town of Punxsutawney as a cinematic Purgatory. Rabbis speak of the fact that Phil will ultimately be rewarded in the afterlife, due to his performing good deeds (mitzvahs) here on earth.

But lest we think that transcendence happens like a snap: Ramis had initially estimated that Phil was stuck in Punxsutawney for 10 years. But in 2009, he reconsidered: “I think the 10-year estimate is too short. It takes at least 10 years to get good at anything, and allotting for the down time and misguided years he spent, it had to be more like 30 or 40 years.”

Hmmm … 30 or 40 years. Which will probably be about the same time it’ll take for all the Punxsutawney Phil-aphiles to stop singing praises to the extraordinary Groundhog Day.

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Rating on a scale of 5 alarm-ing clocks: 5

Initial Release Date: February 12, 1993
Directed by: Harold Ramis
Screenplay by: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
Story by: Danny Rubin
Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliot, Steven Tobolowsky
Running Time: 101 minutes
Rating: PG

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

Comments

  1. Craig says:

    That’s another one of those movies that I can watch whenever it’s on, no matter what part of the movie.

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