For many, February second is that strange day when an overgrown rodent emerges to predict whether or not wintery weather will continue for six more weeks. But for fans of a certain little film it’s more than just that, it’s a day to revisit an old favorite, to relive the day of one man over and over and over again.
The man is Phil (Bill Murray), a narcissistic weather man who dreads his annual coverage of the Groundhog Day proceedings at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This year he’s accompanied by a young optimistic producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), who quickly grates on Phil’s nerves, much like Punxsutawney. After finally getting past the ordeal of the Groundhog Day proceedings, he finds out he’s in for his own long winter when he wakes up the next day to discover its Groundhog Day all over again.
This setup taps into a core comedic tool: the idea of repetition. Since Phil is living the same day over and over again, the film quickly taps into the hilarity that ensues when the same moment diverges or repeats. This creates for some absolutely hilarious comedic gags where the repetition makes sense due to the constructs of the narrative.
Yet it’s not all laughter and fun. While Phil finds ways to abuse the predicate he’s in, he also finds himself stuck in a cycle where his actions have no consequences. The same revelation that enables him to live vicariously also destroys his will to live, casting him into a dark depression. It’s the film’s willingness to go beyond the whimsical and light comedic gags into the dark and sinister repercussions of its premise that elevate it to a film that is more than an excuse for gags.
Bill Murray masterfully walks the line between the comedic and dramatic. Having already been well-established as the sleazy, narcissistic scum-bag who makes us laugh as he gets on top, he has little trouble pulling off the jokes. But, as the film evolves, he embodies deep, unexpected vulnerability which complicates his character and shows his true talent as an actor.
Phil’s journey as a character remains the strongest element of the film. The progression and evolution his character brings together the strong writing and fantastic performance into a fantastic and inspiring story of personal growth. By the end, the man before us has left behind the husk of a character that seems ages gone.
But what does any of this have to do with the actual tradition of Groundhog Day? At first, it seems like simply an unusual arena for the story. Yet it’s more than that. Groundhog Day hinges around two possibilities: six more weeks of winter or an early spring. For Phil, Groundhog Day becomes the potential for either of those for an indefinite period of time, a moment spanning off into more bleakness or the renewal of life.
It’s the way in which he discovers how life can be more than his bleak narcissistic existence that makes the film as powerful as it is. Let’s be honest, most of us are Phils, spending our life caught up in our own daily problems that pale in comparison to many other people’s problems, people we might come into contact on any day. What we miss is what Phil misses for so many days, and sometimes it takes a bleak winter to wake us up to something beyond ourselves.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing