Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Groundhog Day (1993) *****

It’s really nice to rediscover a classic. I had honestly forgotten how much fun “Groundhog Day” is, and how much of an existentialist classic it is. Everybody knows this film, right? Bill Murray plays Phil, a narcissistic regional TV weatherman with aspirations for the big networks. He gets sent with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) for yet another Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, an assignment that Phil hates. He looks forward to being a big-time network weatherman and letting someone else cover the small-town kitsch of Groundhog Day. After doing their report, Phil and his team get stuck in Punxsutawney by a blizzard. He spends another night in his quaint bed and breakfast, and he awakens the next day to…another Groundhog Day. He encounters all the same people, conversations and events as the day before. He is understandably disoriented, and when he tries to discuss the situation with his coworkers, they naturally think he has gone crazy, but no problem, because the next day everyone except Phil forgets everything, and it’s 6 a.m. on Groundhog Day again. This happens again and again and again, as Phil goes through various fascinating stages of dealing with his situation.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, in its own way, “Groundhog Day” is as ingenious a meditation on the human condition as the classic Franz Kafka/Orson Welles film “The Trial.” Both films address existence from a perspective that we are each headed toward an inevitable conclusion, no matter what we do along the way. In “The Trial” (and in existentialist philosophy), that conclusion is death and nonexistence. In “Groundhog Day,” the conclusion of each day is that Phil simply wakes up at the beginning of another Groundhog Day, no matter what he has done on the previous go-round. It is fascinating to watch him deal with this reality in various ways, first with nihilism, then hedonism, then through a misguided attempt to trick Rita into loving him, using accumulated knowledge about her interests and personality. Finally, Phil reaches a place where he decides that if he is going to have to live the same day over and over, he will simply try to live it well, being the best person he can be.

I saw this film back when it was released, and I remember it being intriguing, but in my mind I think I categorized it as mostly a Bill Murray comedy. I’m certain that it will be filed in the Romantic Comedy section of your local video store. Netflix lists it as “Romantic Comedy/Fantasy.” Fantasy is probably closer to the appropriate genre, but I think Inspirational might be more on the money. The Netflix summary says that Phil “realizes he's doomed to repeat Groundhog Day until he learns that his actions can affect the outcome,” but they’ve got it wrong. Much like the protagonist in “The Trial,” Phil never gets any explanation for what has happened to him, and the fact is that he repeats Groundhog Day until he learns that his actions CANNOT affect the outcome, but that being a good person is worthwhile anyway. This is the challenge faced by atheists and agnostics: how to find meaning in a life that may simply end, without being judged by a higher power. “Groundhog Day” delivers its message with humor, but the message is intense, nonetheless.

Murray has had a number of nuanced, provocative roles in his somewhat under-rated career. “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation” are a couple of good ones. “Groundhog Day” may not necessarily feature Murray’s best acting, but the more I think about it, the more I think it is his best film.

5 stars out of 5

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