The movie “Groundhog Day” is about Groundhog Day (February 2nd) and only about Groundhog Day, Groundhog Day repeating hundreds, even thousands of times. Groundhog Day seemingly without end. This is the literal content of the film. In another sense though, the movie is about a lot more, transcending the limits of this one infinitely finite day.
Bill Murray lends his comedic subtlety and dry charm to the role of Phil Connors, a weather reporter inflated with ego and his grandiose career aspirations. Forced for the fourth time to travel to a small town and take part in its February 2nd festivities, he encounters another Phil: the famous groundhog itself. After the end of the day- a boring, banal, dreaded and even dreadful day for Phil (human Phil)- he wakes up the next morning to find it is not the next morning at all. Instead it is the same morning that ought to have been behind him. Phil is stuck in an inexplicable time loop, unable to escape this one day- February 2nd- unable to move into the future.
The movie is a comedy, a romantic comedy, though I worry that the use of these labels reduces the scope and achievement of the film, both of which I believe to be great. Bill Murray displays the full force of his skill, passing from bewilderment to alarm to complacency to apathy to despair to altruism and joy. The greatest challenge for Phil in his suspension in time is really his consciousness. The fact that he must relive the same day over and over is not necessarily bad for him; it is the fact that he knows he is reliving it that gives it its badness. This leads him to a sense of futility, as well as to a deep, seemingly insurmountable sense of alienation: no one else can understand or believe what he is going through.
What gives an action its value? If an action is valuable merely insofar as a means to an end, then there is no other reasonable response for Phil aside from despair. Under the “means” view, Phil’s existence has no meaning. Yet what if we make an analogy between Phil’s rather extraordinary circumstances and our own ordinary daily lives? There are many habits, customs and actions that we do not do only once but multiple times. We have routines, we have circumstances that may change a little though generally stay the same. Why do we keep doing and redoing these ordinary things that, once done, become undone and only need to be done again? What is the point?
If actions are only means, then perhaps we do them to achieve a certain end, the crowning of our aspirations. However, isn’t it possible (even probable) that despite the most diligent efforts, these aspirations might remain unrealized? Does this mean that, in retrospect, our actions were useless and meaningless, since they led nowhere? If so, then maybe we too are like Phil, except we are not conscious of the futility of our lives.
This all sounds very dejecting, but thankfully, “Groundhog Day” does not accept this bleak “means” conclusion, and I do not think it is convincing either.
Phil’s consciousness of his situation is what allows him to recognize and evaluate his assumption that actions are only the means to an end. As time passess and his present actions are still severed from future implications, Phil begins to see actions as ends in themselves. Little moments (moving beyond the sphere of action) have intrinsic value, value in and of themselves. In a sense, they don’t have to do anything. They just have to be- that is, one simply has to be in them. This is the most important lesson that Phil learns: to be.
It is a lesson- a truth- we all need to learn, to pull us out of our obsession with time and our individualistic quests for success. This is the other thing that Phil learns: true being does not increase his self-absorption; it diminishes it. Here I want to return to what i said before about Phil’s alienation. I said he experiences seemingly insurmountable alienation, which calls for further comment. Is it possible to overcome such alienation? I think it is, but only if we are able to “die to self,” to eliminate ego so that we can pour freely from self into another, so that we can love selflessly. I said that no one can understand what Phil is going through, but realistically, no person can ever fully understand another person. This is not a limitation; it is a testament to the rich complexity of human nature. Phil’s time-loop trial is a gradual process of ego-reduction. He is finally capable of love and his repetitive life gains meaning when he stops thinking of what value his actions have for him and his future. Instead these actions have value in how they can help and love “the other,” for how they can stretch outside the self. It doesn’t matter what he has achieved; what matters is the measure of love in his life, love that springs from the little moments and the ordinary beauty of their intricacy.
What if tomorrow did not come? Love, not time; love, not self, is the greatest determining factor of value, and “Groundhog Day” delivers this truth with humour, artistry, emotion and an authentically developed depiction of love.