February 2nd. Groundhog Day in the U.S.A.
I love the Bill Murray/Andie McDowell comedic movie Groundhog Day and have watched it many times. It’s profound and philosophical.
I was interested to read this recent reflection by Neil Carter:
“Groundhog Day is an audiovisual dissertation on philosophy disguised as cinematic entertainment. Every year when Februrary 2nd rolls around, I have to pull this movie back out and watch it again because there are so many things about it that I love. For example, who wouldn’t want a chance to get do-overs for all of their mistakes? And how many times have I wished that I had all the time I need to read whatever I want to read, have all the conversations I want to have, learn to play an instrument, or learn a foreign language? It has quite a few of my favorite movie lines as well. But on a deeper level, Groundhog Day asks a question: What If There Were No Tomorrow?
What if there is no afterlife? How should we then live? What will order our priorities and guide our choices if “tomorrow” (i.e. life in the hereafter) were removed from the equation?
After spending a long miserable day in his least favorite place in the world, Phil Conners (superbly played by Bill Murray) wakes up the next morning only to discover that he has to relive the same day again in the exact same miserable place. Then the next day it happens again. And the next day, again. And again, and again, and again.
The movie explores the many stages a person might go through upon learning that they can do practically anything they wanted. If you were to let a someone have whatever they wanted as many times as they wanted it, how might it change what they want? Upon realizing that he can do whatever he likes, and that there are no lasting consequences for his actions, Phil first embarks on a hedonistic thrill-seeking adventure. He robs banks, evades cops, crashes cars, seduces women, and gorges himself on every unhealthy dish the local diner has to offer. Since there’s no meaningful punishment, there’s nothing to stop him from doing as he pleases. But this only satisfies him for so long. Eventually the novelty of it all wears off and he decides to set his sights a little higher. The most interesting and attractive person in town is his producer, Rita (played by the beautiful Andie MacDowell), but she proves much more difficult to acquire. Intelligent, sensitive, and beautiful, she needs someone much more altruistic and self-actualized than Phil to swoop her off her feet. He tries but fails to win her affections and soon descends into a period of nihilistic despair. He tries to take his own life a number of different ways, but he always wakes up again the next morning unscathed. No matter how bleak the days get, life goes on.
This pushes Phil to re-evaluate what would truly make him happy. The sensual pleasures were fun for a while but people are complex and therefore want more complicated things. Phil starts to read interesting books, learns to play jazz piano, learns to ice sculpt, and teaches himself French. His morning broadcast becomes more and more poetic as he begins to contemplate the deeper questions of human existence. Before long, this self-absorbed weather diva learns to appreciate the company of people he previously thought were too far beneath him for his time and attention. In time he learns that the enjoyment you receive from helping others satisfies something deeper than food, money, or sex could ever satisfy by themselves. He learns the value of contributing to the lives of people around him, not because he would be rewarded the next day for his good behavior, but just because it’s the most enjoyable way he could envision spending this eternally recurring day.
Phil’s impressive knowledge of the intimate details of every person in town revealed that he had spent countless hours sitting and listening to people telling their stories, which is perhaps the most powerful education anyone could ever have. In the meantime, he also learned more about himself and about what really makes a person happy – what makes life worth living. He discovered that investing time and care into the lives of others made for a more fulfilling life. He had all the time in the world to try out every other way of living and that’s the one he chose in the end. He would never land that dream job working for the big network, but he would find a way to make his ‘day’ as meaningful as it could possibly be under the circumstances in which he found himself. This is what humans do if allowed the time and freedom to discover for themselves what truly makes us happy.
What Groundhog Day suggests is true of human nature: We are equally capable of both great selfishness and noble altruism, but the enjoyment of the latter ultimately eclipses the thrill of the former if only you’ll give people the time and opportunity to figure that out.
In the end, Phil grew into his full potential as a human being. He learned to sympathize with others and to identify with them in their life situations. He learned compassion, cooperation, and humility. He also grew in his ability to love and to appreciate beauty. All the external motivators were removed, and he became a better man for it, the kind of man which Rita wanted to be with in the first place. In the end he got the girl after all (who doesn’t want the story to end that way?). He broke the curse by becoming more than the man he was when he entered this purgatorial time loop. The next day finally came, and a new man greeted the morning, ready to find out what new things could be learned and explored.