A long-time favorite, Groundhog Day is one of those annual viewings that’s difficult to view with objectivity. Along with The Muppets Take Manhattan (yep), it’s one of the first films that introduced me to (something like) adult humor. Certainly this movie is impossible to imagine without Bill Murray, but the camera work and editing are as responsible for key moments of comedy and poignancy as any of Murray’s perfectly timed sarcasm. Some have said that one viewing of Groundhog Day creates the feeling of having watched it a hundred times or more. Of course, this is part of the film’s point, but Harold Ramis’ faith in his audience really is to be admired. It took guts to shoot the “Can I buy you a drink?” scene over and over and over again with nothing but straight cuts separating the sequences from one another. Ramis’ faith in Murray is at least as high as it is in his audience; without a lead capable of subtle and nuanced humor through very repetitive scenes, a film like this would drive even the most patient viewer crazy.
All the affection for Groundhog Day aside, however, a major question at the end of the film is whether Phil has really changed. Or, better, was the film successful in creating a narrative of a man who truly transformed from a selfish, cynical jerk into an altruistic, generous soul? The film undoubtedly wants the viewer to think this, and it gives numerous pieces of evidence to validate its claim. Phil essentially passes through four phases as he relives Groundhog Day. First, he’s afraid and confused. Second, he lives it up like a hedonist. Third, he becomes depressed and nihilistic. Finally, he begins performing acts of kindness and service to those around him. This last phase is intended to be the most telling of Phil’s redemption, but careful attention to Phil’s manners betrays what appears to be a shift in Phil’s outlet for selfishness rather than a change from selfish to selfless.
When Phil catches the boy falling from the tree, he puts him down and says to the boy, “What do you say? What do you say?! You little brat! You have never thanked me!” To be sure, Murray’s tone is going for “funny” here, but this is the consistent problem with all of Phil’s “kind” acts; the film’s priority (or at least Murray’s) seems to be for comedy rather than successfully portraying an essential change in Phil’s character. In fact, the closer the film gets toward its finale, the more Phil’s acts actually seem to draw more attention to him than ever. The final Groundhog Day, the one which turns out actually to have consequences in reality, makes Phil a celebrity in Punxsutawney and allows him finally to bed his dream woman. He saves a couple lives, changes a tire, and wallows in the spotlight as the head performer at the town party. As a result, everyone loves Phil. Even Phil’s broadcast that morning at Gobbler’s Knob, replete with a quote from Chekhov, gets the entire community to gather around him as he waxes eloquent (and disingenuous?) about the nature of winter and the human condition.
It would seem that Phil’s “carpe diem” lifestyle in phase two of reliving Groundhog Day taught him the hard lesson that such a strategy actually doesn’t pay. He got to know Rita better than he’d previously imagined possible, but the more he got to know her, the more likely she was to end the evening with a slap in the face. Groundhog Day, for all its successful humor and style, seems inadvertently to show a man who gets smarter and not better, or craftier and not kinder. He gives of himself but only in such a way that the payoff for him makes it worthwhile. He learns to milk a crowd for all they’re worth and satisfy his own narcissism by toning down the cynicism and upping the charm.