Reviews / 09 August 2010
USA / 1993
I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to hit reset and get a do-over for the day (or week, or month, or year). Or at the very least get a chance to say the smart, witty thing I should’ve said instead of the dumb thing I did say. Life could be made perfect with hindsight, and a trip to the future couldn’t hurt either. Thus, aside from the fantastical gimmicks and intellectual tests of logic it provides, time travel in the movies offers a more visceral appeal: the vicarious pleasure of manipulating fate. The classical narrative film, after all, has as its primary objective the artificial ordering of life into an easily digested story arc, in which the messiness of life is allowed to permeate only insofar as it offers dramatic conflict, but not enough to actually alter the story’s preordained trajectory. Time travel is the obvious extension of an enterprise determined to deliver the pleasures of artificial control. As such, within the dream machine, time travel may be the ultimate in cinematic wish fulfillment.
Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day turns these conventions on their head. Here, the hero neither initiates nor wants time travel—time instead foists itself upon him, as it does all of us, an immovable force that he (and we) can either combat or embrace. The desire all of us have for a redo is, for Phil Connors, not a gift of fate or a personal choice but some sort of cosmic punishment. Despite being given God-like powers of both hindsight and foresight – the ultimate tools with which to write one’s own destiny – Phil remains under time’s crushing weight until he is able to treat the time he is given as a blessing rather than a curse. As the film hilariously, wisely illustrates, time is the one thing even the freest man is slave to, even if (or especially if) he has an eternity of it. Far from presenting time travel as a vicarious path to audience pleasure – technically, Phil doesn’t travel through time, but remains stuck in it – the film underlines the ways in which most of us waste the time that we have. It’s a measure of Ramis’ and Murray’s comedic instincts, and especially Ramis’ warm optimism, that the film’s darker aspects, its subtle critique of how we live our lives, is less discussed than the romantic morality tale that provides the backbone for the film. That these two sides of the film are able to coexist so harmoniously without devolving into mawkish sentimentality or preachiness recalls the perfect tonal balance of It’s a Wonderful Life and speaks to the complexity of this contemporary masterpiece.
It’s the rare film whose title becomes shorthand vernacular to describe the exact phenomenon the film is about, so it’s a testament to the success of Groundhog Day that a plot synopsis seems redundant. But here goes, for the uninitiated: local TV weatherman Phil Connors, a scornful, narcissistic, self-pitying creep, goes to small town Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities with his producer and cameraman, played by Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot, respectively. After being stranded by a snowstorm, Phil wakes up the next day to realize—it’s yesterday. Groundhog Day again. And again and again. Somehow, every morning, at the stroke of 6:00 AM, Phil wakes up to the same day over and over, doomed to repeat Groundhog Day forever. After the initial trauma of his predicament subsides, Phil realizes he can exploit this quirk of space-time for his own benefit: he seduces women using information he learned from them yesterday (that is, today); he steals money from an armored car after observing its exact movements day after day; he gorges on food since tomorrow will erase the sins of today. But Phil’s endless, meaningless day – compounded with, one suspects, his own meanness and insincerity – begins to wear at him. In a morbidly funny montage, Ramis shows Phil’s repeated attempts to kill himself, only to wake up to another Groundhog Day.
A particularly brilliantly sequence reveals Phil’s vainglorious attempts to manipulate the hand he’s been dealt as the fantasy it is. Ramis seamlessly edits together a series of dates that Phil and Rita, his producer, go on, each on different cycles of Phil’s day but occurring in the same setting. In each, the blocking and cinematography are exactly the same, but Phil’s lines vary, building on what he learned about Rita previously and reflecting what he thinks she’ll want to hear. The sequence, in effect, looks like different takes of the same scene. Phil, in other words, becomes the director and star of his own movie, trying to edit together the perfect date. But despite his best efforts, it’s just that: a movie. Rita sees through his rehearsed sincerity, and Phil never seals the deal. Ramis is having a little fun at the filmmaking process here, but it also resonates beyond the in-joke. Ramis specifically denies the wish fulfillment that time travel usually offers films; the order that movies are so good at constructing, and that the manipulation of time expands exponentially, is here reduced to farce. Controlling fate, the film suggests, is about as realistic as the artificial control of movies.
At this point the film could easily have veered off into much darker, more densely philosophical territory, but Ramis is above all a mainstream comedian (and just a really genial guy, if his interviews and screen performances are any indication) and his faith in humanity wins the day.1 Part of what makes the film such an enduringly popular entertainment is its treatment of Phil’s existential dilemma as a vehicle for comedy, not, as other more knowingly eccentric or highbrow fare may, as a series of Big Questions. Its fantastical premise notwithstanding, the film is essentially structured as a romantic comedy, and Ramis keeps the film floating affably along on its own off-kilter yet familiar rhythms, without the slightest trace of thematic or philosophical pretension.
As is required by the romantic comedy, the third act sees changes of heart take place, wrongs made right, and boy get girl. Instead of seeing his predicament as a cosmic curse, Phil begins to use it as an opportunity to better himself, learning piano and reading poetry, and to do good, using his deific powers of foreknowledge to help the people of Punxsutawney; Phil becomes a sort of George Bailey-like prodigal son. Indeed, as in It’s a Wonderful Life, Phil comes to see the small town he’s trapped in as his true home, his neighbors his family, and his loss of personal freedom a noble sacrifice for the collective good.2
It is easy to see why this humble work is widely regarded as one of the most spiritual – if not outright religious – films ever made. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented a film series entitled, “The Hidden God: Film and Faith,” Groundhog Day stood side by side with art house cornerstones like Au Hasard Balthazar and Day of Wrath. It was such a popular selection, in fact, that a row broke out among the critics polled as to who would get to write about it for the catalogue.3¬†Ramis himself says he’s been inundated with letters since the film’s release from all sorts of religious groups, from Buddhists to rabbis, claiming that the film must be a treatise on their faiths. Certainly, Phil’s endless cycle of death/sleep and rebirth, coupled with his increasing compassion for others, recalls the Buddhist notion of samsara—karma-determined reincarnation toward nirvana to escape suffering. Phil can eventually be seen as a sort of Bodhisattva, an enlightened person who stays on Earth to help others reach enlightenment. (This is effectively what Phil does at the end of the film when, despite finally waking up to a real tomorrow, he decides to stay in Punxsutawney.)
There are echoes of Western faiths as well. Jews point to Phil’s decision to stay in Punxsutawney as reflecting the Jewish reward of continuing to do good on Earth, rather than the Christian reward of going to heaven.4 On the Christian front, Phil’s nearly omnipotent ability to save others at the expense of his own life calls to mind similar attributes of Jesus. There is also his “resurrection,” both his waking from his repetitive cycle at the end of the film as well as, more metaphorically, his transformation from a dead soul at the beginning of the film to the savior he becomes at the end. The overall ambiguity of the film – the how and why of Phil’s condition are never explained – also lends it a quasi-mysticism reminiscent of religious stories and myths, and invites interpretations from beyond the here and now.
The film itself, however, is specifically not religious; the only mention of spirituality is a joke about God being so powerful because, like Phil, He’s been around for so long. The closest thing to religious iconography in the film is an enormous, screen-filling close-up of a clock as it ticks from 5:59 to 6:00—time is the governing deity of this film as it is for most of us in our day-to-day lives, regardless of personal religion. Far from being overtly spiritual, the film’s universal themes of self-betterment and compassion for our fellow man serve instead as a catch-all for the commonalities of the world’s faiths, a reminder that most religions – that is to say, most people – share the simple belief that we must be good and do good.
The moral dimensions of the film are perhaps what most audiences come away from the film with. But Groundhog Day also has a more subversive side, one that strikes me harder than the story of moral redemption. Early in the film, I somewhat uncomfortably noticed how much variety Phil’s everlasting day(s) held—aside from his morning routine and doing his television report on the Groundhog Day festivities, you would not know it was the same day over and over again except for his constant griping about it. The parts of his day that are truly, infinitely repetitive are the same repetitive parts of our own days: waking up and going to work. In other words, unless you lead an extraordinarily interesting life or are in denial, “Groundhog Day” is an affliction most of us suffer. Like Phil’s, most of our mornings are essentially the same—we get up, brush our teeth, grab our coffee, and go to work. Like Phil, we see the same people on the way to work, exchange the same pleasantries. Like Phil, we go to work, where most of us do largely the same activity every day with some slight variation. And then we go home, where we have a few precious hours to inject as much variety into the day as we can, just to remind ourselves that today is different from yesterday, that, as Phil worries about early in the film, we have “a future.” Or we can veg out in front of the TV and watch reruns of shows we know by heart, the equivalent of Phil’s knowing all the answers to Jeopardy before the questions are even asked.
Ramis is much too gentle to be so blunt in his satire, but Groundhog Day – more than a morality play, more than a spiritual discourse, more than an existential rom-com – is essentially a satire on the banality of middle-class life: the routines we fall into, the people we meet but never bother to know, the jobs that we half-ass, the calculated seductions that take the place of romance, the self-centered focus on moving onto bigger and better things without fully appreciating what we have, the paralyzing stasis that can drive people toward depression and suicide, the time that we waste.
Despite (and because of) the circumscribed parameters that the cosmos carved out for him, Phil, unlike many of us, manages to upend these complacencies and learns to make the most of his time, to embrace what he’s been given. Phil begins the film as someone who thinks life owes him, that if others can’t see how great he is, it’s their faul—blaming fate, he says, “I’m not going to play by their rules anymore,” referring to no one in particular. He ends the film with the realization that only he is responsible for himself. With his life both never-ending and distilled into a single day – no one he meets today will remember him the next, no accomplishment will last – Phil is forced to live each day as if it were his last—or indeed, his only. He realizes, as we do, happiness is knowing that even if tomorrow never comes, today was a great day.
- It’s actually somewhat amazing that the film is as measured and oblique as it is. As a comedy, the film is more chuckles than guffaws, and would almost certainly not be made by a major studio today. If the same script were circulating today, it would probably be classified as indie/art house-lite, released by Focus Features and directed by Michel Gondry.↩
- In keeping with the film’s essentially conservative bent, it’s even made clear that Phil’s physical lust has been tamed: the film goes to great lengths to keep the relationship between Phil and Rita chaste. Even on the last night of Phil’s cycle, when Phil has completed his transformation from cad to upstanding citizen, the filmmakers make sure we know that he did not get it on with Rita. When they wake up the next morning, Rita specifically mentions that all they did was fall asleep.↩
- Alex Kuczynski, “Groundhog Almighty,” _The New York Times_, Dec. 7, 2003↩
- Kuczynski, _The New York Times_↩
August 12, 2010