The Bill Murray vehicle “Groundhog Day” is a “guilty pleasure” of mine. It apparently has been the “inspiration” for other story lines in shows like Supernatural (episode entitled “Mystery Spot”-Season 3) and the more recent Haven (“Audrey Parker’s Day Off” Season 2). Each having their own twist to the Bill Murray original.
When I first viewed it, I reacted to Murray’s character negatively (correctly so!). He was certainly irritating, obnoxious, self-centered, egotistical… well, it certainly made the journey with the character of Phil more satisfying to see him change. His character arc was very satisfying as he became a more caring person.
Phil first starts off being confused and bewildered by his circumstances of reliving Groundhog day over. He tries to get medical help and then visits a psychologist but to no avail. Then, interacting with two drunks in a bowling alley, Phil queries, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing that you did mattered?” The deadpan retort was: “That about sums it up for me.” Yet these two reveal an important concept for Phil. When he asks, “What if there were no tomorrow,” the somewhat astute answer is: “There would be no consequences… we could do whatever we wanted!” Of course this takes Phil in a wrong direction! It unleashes Phil’s self-centeredness to a higher degree! He pushes the boundaries of that concept by punching out “Needle-nose Ned” and gorging himself on sweets. When Rita asks about his lack of concern regarding his overindulges—Phil replies, “I don’t worry about anything anymore.” We almost envy him at this point.
Then he tries to hit on a pretty celebrant, Nancy Taylor. But that ends in disaster! He steals from an armored truck so he can go to his favorite western movie in a limo. Since there are no consequences, Phil has no conscience to limit his actions.
Phil then takes aim at Rita—trying to make the most perfect date ever—learning from each blunder what to do and what NOT to do (“no white chocolate”). But with all his planning, she rebuffs him repeatedly. He cannot recapture the “magic of the previous “day” and his attempt to do so is repugnant. His self-serving attempts will not work with her. As Stephen Tolbosky shares, Rita strives for excellence and Phil just doesn’t live up to that standard!
Phil then goes into a suicidal depression but fails to end his life after numerous attempts. His view of himself radically changes!
“I am god” Phil declares to Rita (or at least “a god). Phil attempts to “proves” his omniscience by revealing details of everyone in the diner. Rita is intrigued and makes Phil her “science project” for the day. A minor time indicator of how much time has been consumed is Phil’s attempt to teach Rita to flip a playing card into a hat. He reveals that all it would take would be to practice “six months, 4-5 hours a day.” Phil gets brutally honest and admits he is a “jerk.” “I’ve killed myself so many times that I don’t exist anymore.” I’ve thought about that and have seen a possible parallel to the Christian concept of “dying to self.” Our “old self” has many flaws and to make a significant change in our behavior, one must “die to the old self.” Interesting… Phil’s big regret that Rita will not remember all the good things that happened each relived day. Rita responds by suggesting that what Phil is going through is “not a curse” but actually “depends on how you look at it.” I believe this is the true turning point in Phil’s existence.
Phil now reaches out. The old beggar he’s been avoiding gets a handful of cash. He brings coffee for his co-workers and inspired by a classic piano piece blaring out of a boom box—determines to learn to play the piano! (Earlier, Rita describes her perfect man as someone who can play a musical instrument—yet Phil is no longer trying to fit Rita’s standard of perfection but he just wants to do it for himself!)
His attention turns to those who need help in Punxsutawney. Saving a boy from a nasty fall, some ladies with a flat tire and a man from choking (played by Bill’s real brother Brian Doyle Murray). Yet his helpfulness is limited. He must confront the specter of death that comes for an old beggar who he tries desperately to save. Phil fails. It seems that there are some things in this life that are inevitable—death, certainly. Death is something that is out of our ability to control. So we must concern ourselves with those things within our control!
Phil has developed compassion for others and a view toward self-improvement. He has become a better person in his initial quest to escape Groundhog Day. His hope for escape has faded long ago and even His love for Rita takes a backseat to this desire to be of help to others. Yet ironically, this is what finally attracts Rita to Phil at the very end. And in her “purchasing” of Phil at a charity auction, their relationship is taken to the next level. AND Groundhog Day finally ends!
How long did Phil’s transformation take? From an initial watching of the movie, one might say a number of months at least —In one scene, Phil explains to Rita that if she were to practice flipping cards into a hat for 6 months, practicing 5 hours a day, she would become an expert. And that was one of Phil’s lesser abilities. How long does it take to learn to ice-sculpt? How long does it take to learn to play the piano so that you can perform a jazzed up version of the 18th Variation from Rapsodie On a Theme of Paganini? Years! How many? Perhaps, 5-10 years of practice? And if you only practice for the hour lesson (and not as other would do in practicing at home for a few hours more each day), it would take even longer!
How long was Phil’s Groundhog Day experience? My wild guess would be at least a 3-4 decades- give or take a decade either way! Danny Rubin, the screenwriter envisioned it to be thousands of years! He felt that those changes in Phil would not come easily and would take a long time—with Phil believing it would NEVER end. That is a LONG redemptive process! Jesus accomplished redemption in 3 1/2 years! (Of course, that’s Jesus! This is Phil…)
On a minor note, I have a bone to pick with the piano teacher. She threw her student out to take in Phil for $1000. And each day he “returns” is her FIRST time
with him— After several years, Phil has improved immeasurably and she has GOT to see that he had to have a few lessons before coming to her! Yet during one early lesson, she reacts to his sour notes with weird facial expressions –yet he must be doing quiet well for a rank beginner (from her perspective). Then at the party, she brags that he is her student! (After ONE lesson???) Hmmm…
During the special feature “Weight of Time” Harold Ramis the director ( I know him better as Dr. Egon Spengler…) shares that some of the positive responses to the film from Buddists, then a Yogi; letters from Jesuits and fundamentalist Christians each saying in essence “this is exactly what we are teaching—you must be one of us!” I can see this movie having an eastern religious flavoring. Many have embraced it because of the “redemptive” change in the life of Phil from being grossly ego-centric to becoming a caring person who has value to others.
Harold Ramis states that Phil moves from being “a prisoner” of that time and place to being the “master” of that time and place. It would be nice to be the “master” of our time and place—but more often, we feel like a victim of our circumstances. Perhaps a “secret” for living is accepting the limitations and problems we encounter and deal creatively with them. Would that we could “master” our environment. Ramis also states: “When Phil stops worrying about himself all the time and starts living his life in service to others, then his life gets full indeed…” In that, the Christian teaching of being a “servant of all “ certainly is comes into play. There is certainly much value in living your life to help and serve others because most of us see the problem with being self-centered! That is what stood out in my mind in watching Groundhog Day.
Finally, I would have preferred not to have Phil say to Rita, “Let’s live here,” but rather, “Let’s get married and live here.” I still have a high regard for the institution of marriage and after all that work, that tough “courtship”—that would have been a better payoff.