Groundhog Day is one of those films that I catch a few minutes of on cable every five or six years, never from the beginning, always in bits and pieces, and I'm reminded, each and every time, what an insightful movie it is. I saw it for the first time when I was in high school, and laughed at it, and enjoyed it, and forgot about it. Over the years it's gained a kind of cult popularity within spiritual and religious circles. It's not a movie that looks like a masterpiece; it looks, in fact, like what it is -- a Harold Ramis movie, directed in that competent comedy style by the guy who brought you Vacation and Club Paradise and Analyze This and Analyze That and Multiplicity and, lest we forget, Caddyshack. It's a mainstream comedy movie, shot as such, with nothing arty or pretentious about it. Given all that, I can also say that it's something close to brilliant.
You probably know the plot. Bill Murray (in a role not unlike the one he portrayed in the underrated Scrooged) plays a grumpy weatherman assigned to wait for the annual coming-of-the-groundhog one cold February morning in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania. Only problem is, he can't escape the town; he can't leave; he wakes up each and every day and it's the same day, the day he got there, with everybody doing the same things and saying the same things and living out the same actions. He's stuck with them. He's stuck with himself.
Simple. A neat little fantasy twist that would make Richard Matheson or Rod Sterling or Stephen King proud. But it's not the hook that makes the movie; it's the metaphor. Here is a man who is not happy with his life or the people around him. His life is routine, boring, uneventful. The same shit happens, repeatedly. He can't escape it. He tries to escape it. No luck.
So what does he do? Tries to leave. When he can't do that, he tries to use his newfound knowledge about the rhythms of this one particular day to his own advantage; he learns about people's habits and moods and emotions, hoping that by knowing these, by using these, he can get people to love him. Doesn't work. So what happens? Frustrated, he tries to kill himself.
Even that doesn't work. And what's interesting is that the film clearly shows, after one suicide attempt, a few of the other characters commenting on his horrific truck crash. What does this mean? It means that the world does go on, without him; it means that other people can leave, grow, move on. It's himself that he's stuck with, and his own life. We are all the main actors in our own movie. I'm not entirely sure that Ramis had this existential offshoot in mind when filming that particular scene, so sly and subtle it is, but it works.
Even death can't claim him. He wakes, up again, in the same day, repeatedly.
Eventually, possibly out of sheer boredom and hopelessness, he begins to use his knowledge of the town and others to benefit the town and others. He starts doing everything for others instead of everything for himself. Instead of trying to impress the girl he loves, having given up on her ever coming around to his romantic point of view, he simply does good shit for those around him. Stuck in the same day, the same routine, he makes the best of it for those around him. After all, they, too, are entrapped in the same monotony; even so, he can make their lives better. Such selflessness thus causes the woman he loves to fall in love with him. Which causes him to magically, the next day, wake up, in a new day. Life has moved on, and he with it.
A simple story, really. The story of our lives, actually. Doing the same stuff day after day, trapped in routine, going nowhere. Trying to sideswipe such boredom by chasing after our own selfish desires will do nothing to alleviate such pain; only by inserting ourselves into others' lives and others' existences will we be to reach beyond ourselves. That's what the film is saying, in a comedic, Bill Murray-like way. It's utter unpretentiousness, its humor, its understated warmth and generosity-- that's what makes the film work as a better-than-average comedy, and it's also why so many Christians and Buddhists and Muslims have seen the film as embodying and embracing their own particular religious philosophy.
It's one of those movies that may, in fact, upon reflection, simplify and clarify and embody the process of living itself more clearly and succintly and empathetically than any other film I can think of.
"I'm a God," Bill Murray says in the film, "not the God. I don't think."
There it is, the crystalization of the whole film, of human existence, right there.
If there's a more concise philosophy of life and living and how to approach our own roles in an uncertain universe than that, I haven't heard it.