Video Review: Groundhog Day
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker
Becoming a better man, one day at a time.
If you’ve read some of our previous reviews, you know that we believe a film’s theme to be at least as important as the images, sound, or technical execution of a film. The theme is the whole point of a movie, what makes it worth watching. So, if that theme is flawed, or in a worst-case scenario, untrue, the movie suffers and may even be destructive. On the other hand, when a movie’s theme is based on truth, it can be a powerful force for good, touching a universal audience.
Hollywood is often attacked for degrading and destructive material, but once in a while it surprises us with an affirming film that resonates with millions of people. One such film, a highlight of the 90’s, is Groundhog Day.
Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a cynical weatherman from a local news station, is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, PA. He goes reluctantly (it is his fourth time covering it), but is committed to being unhappy about it. After going through the ritual with the “rat,” Phil, his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and their cameraman (Chris Elliott) find themselves snowed in by a terrible blizzard. They won’t be leaving Punxsutawney anytime soon. The next morning Phil wakes up to find that it is Groundhog Day all over again. Each succeeding morning is also Groundhog Day! Regardless of what Phil does, he is trapped into reliving his most hated day over and over.
A Road to Misery
Phil, predictably, doesn’t react well to this situation. He moves from denial to anger to ecstasy at being able to do whatever he wants without consequence. But his exultation is short lived. He soon realizes that reckless behavior and exploiting innocent people does not bring him the happiness he thinks it should. Things get so bad that he sees his only escape in suicide. But even death reverses itself when he wakes up the next morning to the same ol’ day.
All of this may sound hedonistic, but the truth is that Phil’s wrong choices make him miserable. The fact that each day gets worse and worse makes Phil rethink his attitude and understand that he has been living this day all wrong.
Perhaps the most moving sequence in the film occurs when Phil wakes up to the plight of an old homeless man. At first he gives him a handout, on another day he feeds him, and on yet another day he tries desperately to save his life, but every single time the man dies by the end of the day. The hilarity of the film is transformed into real compassion and pain at Phil’s inability to save this man. At this turning point, Phil determines to help all those in need.
The Film’s Meaning
Happily, all the technical contributions to the film are first-rate. Bill Murray, is in magnificent form and Andie MacDowell is perfectly cast as the epitome of inner and outer beauty-something Phil Connor can aspire to. The technical elements serve beautifully to reinforce the main theme: selfishness leads to a meaningless existence. And it’s corollary: selflessness bring joy to oneself and others. But Groundhog Day doesn’t stop there. It explores several other sub-themes including:
All people, no matter how far gone, have the potential to be beautiful, positive, affirming people. What it takes is a righteous use of agency–choosing to serve and lift others rather than choosing to gratify self and ignoring the needs of others.
We need to appreciate life and enjoy each day, especially since our days are numbered. WHEN we die is not under our control, so the only thing we can control is WHAT we do with each day.
To find “true” love we need to give love. When Phil receives this type of love he says: “this can’t be true.” This is the power of unconditional, selfless love.
We all identify with the embittered Phil. We have all lived through bad days and bad attitudes, but perhaps not to the extreme that he has. Even before he gets caught in this wacky time loop, his bitter attitude about everything keeps him from experiencing joy. Whether he is in the studio or on the Punxsutawney common, his outlook on life traps him into an endless gray day.
Much of the comedy and much of what intrigues us about Phil Connor is that he says and does things we would never say and do, but that we sometimes think. It is through watching his repetition of mistakes and various attempts to change that we learn the power of the theme in our own lives. We each have tremendous potential, and each day has tremendous potential, but like Phil we often commit the same mistakes day in and day out and then wonder why we are unhappy. If we learn what Phil learns, to approach each moment with gratitude, service, and love for others, then we will wake each morning looking forward to the opportunities we have been given.
All this having been said, reviewing this film brings up an interesting point of discussion. Phil in his hedonistic phase has several, comical suicide attempts and an attempted seduction. Some of the language is offensive, and the two main characters end up sleeping together, though fully clothed. They have fallen asleep exhausted at the end of the day. With the positive underlying theme, are we still better off avoiding this PG movie? We invite reader discussion on these questions, because most of us face dilemmas in movie selection several times a month, and all of us share the common desire to keep our minds and spirits pure. Here are questions we’d like to pose for your response:
What do you do as parents when objectionable language is used in front of your children?
How do you talk to your children about immorality display so often in movies or television shows?
How do you determine what movies are appropriate for your children without exposing yourself to garbage?
What sources have you found are reliable in determining a movie’s worth?
What do you do when a movie has an excellent script, wonderful cinematography, stellar acting skills, and an important underlying moral theme, and one objectionable scene?
Send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll post many of your thoughts in the Meridian’s Letters to the Editor, so please include your name and place of residence (city, state, and country).
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