Groundhog Day (Columbia, 1993)

Bill Murray is good at playing jerks. This time, however, he gets to play a jerk with a future -- a jerk who, for whatever reasons, is allowed to relive the same day over and over until he gets it right for a change.

Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentrical and sarcastic weatherman who is obliged to make his yearly trip to Punxatawney, PA, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Connors particularly hates this assignment, and spares no one as he makes the shoot, dissing the townspeople as "hicks", and even the groundhog as a "stupid rat." Accompanying Connors on his fated trip are his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott). Although they don't mind filming the celebration -- which is understandably a big deal in Punxatawney -- they have to put up with Phil and his assinine attitude. At the end of the day, Phil is anxious to leave and get back home to Pittsburgh -- but alas, his return is derailed by a massive snowstorm. The trio are forced to spend another night in Punxatawney.

But the lesson's just starting for Connors. When he awakens to the same Sonny and Cher song on his clock-radio, he finds that somehow it's still February 2nd, Groundhog Day. The exact same things are going to happen, and the snowstorm will once again make him stay in Punxatawney. For Connors, it could be Groundhog Day forever.

Therefore, it's up to Phil to learn his Life Lesson. Although this film is a comedy, and is truly funny, it raises a lot of questions about Karma. The Eastern belief about karma is that we go through countless lifetimes with the same soul, over and over, learning from each life experience, and correcting the wrongs we have done until we have cleared our soul of mistakes. Then, and only then, are we allowed to rise to a Higher Plane of Existence -- Nirvana.

Phil starts out at rock bottom. There's not a lot to like about the guy. Rude, self-centered, and negative, his little crew has a job just tolerating both him and his mammoth ego. And then, at 6:30 the next morning...

...it's today, all over again. At first Phil plays along in amazement; nobody else in town seems to notice that it's Groundhog Day on replay. Over and over.

Phil Conners goes through something like the five stages of grieving. After he realizes that he's stuck in the same day, he perceives there are no consequences to his actions. Free to rip along the railroad tracks, sideswipe a train, get totally wasted...even to steal the famous groundhog and roar down the highway with the 'hog at the wheel. Anger turns to defiance. Conners chain smokes and stuffs himself with pastries, much to the disgust of pretty producer Rita, upon whom, unfortunately, Phil has had an unspoken crush. As he turns his attention away from himself finally, he learns what Rita is like inside -- and then tries to exploit the knowledge to get her into bed, which still doesn't work. What a jerk. Next, Connors sinks into depression when nothing seems to be changing, except his familiarity. By now he's already tried everything and gotten all of his kinks out; the situation has ceased to be fun. Connors discovers, after a variety of experiments, that he isn't even able to commit suicide.

Acceptance sets in. Phil acknowledges his predicament, and decides by default to just go with the flow.

Finally, since he seems to be stuck for all eternity in Punxatawney on Groundhog Day, the weatherman begins efforts to better his life, bond with the townspeople he initially scorned, learn things to make his life more pleasant. He even starts to play a mean honky-tonk piano. But will the "new Phil" be enough to satisfy Phil's Karma requirements? Will he ever make Rita love him?

This is a great film, and it works on several levels. It is an urban fantasy, certainly, but more in a Twilight Zone kind of way, than a folk or fairytale aspect. In one man's life-overhaul we can recognize every one of us -- and it makes us wonder what we would do in Phil's situation. I don't think there is anyone reading who hasn't wished for the chance to go back and "make things right" -- but take today, for example. Pretend you are Phil Connors. What would you do with the day...today? Groundhog Day is a look at redemption from a wonderfully different angle. And though Phil's mistakes are hilarious, they show how our basic personalities and flaws can interfere with the way we live our lives, and the choices we make.

Groundhog Day, from the Tao or Zen point of view, exposes different, deeper philosophical levels upon which the film works. However, according to Eastern traditions, though the main character's consciousness is raised, the resolution of the film is flawed to fit the mold of a Hollywood happily-ever-after situation. Hollywood is particularly adept at twisting things around, no matter how problematic the plot lines, to leave viewers feeling smiley at the end, especially where relationships are concerned. Still, that doesn't weaken the power of Groundhog Day -- at least not in my eyes. Given the rich material of Phil Connors' situation, we could re-work it into a fascinating, much darker comedy. If the film had continued in a Twilight Zone fashion, the resolution would have been darker also...and more multi-layered.

But even as it stands, Groundhog Day is a terrific movie. It's funny, but the laughs come from a serious place. The fact that one man is able to re-stabilize his Karma in the reliving of one day gives us all a measure of hope. If sarcastic weatherman Phil Connors can pull it off -- and make us care about him in spite of his initial flaws -- we can do it too.

 

[Kimberlee Sweeney Rettberg]