OK, readers, rise and shine — Sonny and Cher are on the radio!
For our latest Weekend Watch, we asked you to check out (or revisit) “Groundhog Day,” Harold Ramis’s 1993 bliss-out. Bill Murray stars as Phil Connors, a jaundiced weatherman for a Pittsburgh television station. While covering Groundhog Day in the charming hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pa., Phil becomes mysteriously stuck in a time loop that causes him to repeat the same day ad infinitum. He suffers. He laughs. He learns to play the piano. And though he never loses his quintessential Bill Murray-ness, he changes. With so many of us locked down and facing days that blur together, it felt like the perfect film to revisit. From the comments from fellow Watchers, it appears that many of you felt the same.
MANOHLA DARGIS It’s been awhile since I watched “Groundhog Day” partly because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my memory of it. Not every film can withstand repeat viewings, but this one seems self-consciously created for multiple viewings. As Phil says when he takes a date to see a movie: “I love this film. I’ve seen it over a hundred times.”
This time, I was struck by the brilliance of the editing and its perfect comedic timing. I also was really taken with Andie MacDowell as Rita, the open-faced, sweet-hearted news producer who inspires Phil’s metaphysical journey. She holds her own against Murray beautifully. The other thing that I noticed — and this has a lot to do with our present situation — is how melancholic it is. This time I felt pretty flooded with emotion when Phil says “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
At the very end of Groundhog Day, Phil (Bill Murray) says, “Do you know what today is? Today is tomorrow. It happened.” For a long time, I’ve been holding onto something that Dr. Tony Fauci has said: the coronavirus pandemic will end, he said. “I promise.” I don’t know when the pandemic will end, but I have faith that someday I will be able to say, “It happened.”— Cheryl, Knoxville, TN
A.O. SCOTT How many times does Phil kill himself? He dies in a fiery crash, taking the groundhog with him. He steps in front of a train. He jumps off a roof. He gets into the bathtub with a toaster. Rita and their cameraman, Larry (the indispensable Chris Elliott) have to identify his body. I had forgotten about this macabre little sequence, or maybe I just folded it in with the rest of the comedy.
But death haunts this movie all the same, and this time around it haunted me, too. How many lives does Phil save? As we come better acquainted with what’s going on in Punxsutawney on Feb. 2, we catch glimpses of the terrible ordinary day that might have been. That always was. A homeless man dies alone. A boy falls from a tree onto the hard sidewalk. The mayor chokes on a piece of steak. We’re only aware of these potential tragedies because Phil is around to prevent them from happening. And once he finally masters the day, he is the only one with any knowledge of the other ways it could have gone. We have an inkling, thanks to our condensed experience of what must be a very long series of repetitions. The intriguing thing about Rita is that she might have an inkling, too.
I was struck by Andie MacDowell’s sheer adorableness in this film, which I mean in the broadest and best sense of the term. She has to play “straight man” to Bill Murray, not an easy task for any actor. But her effect is such that not only is she convincing, she also conveys the warmth the film seeks as its end-game message. — BG Klinger, Chicago, IL
DARGIS The romance felt very different to me this time, maybe just because I’ve been married that much longer. I recognized all the struggles to do better, be better. I’d also forgotten that Phil wasn’t even interested in Rita at first. We only know that he’s interested in Rita when he calls out her name (twice!) while with another woman. It’s such a mean moment I gasped this time, but as a reader, Janet Williams, pointed out, the film is “a little cruel.” Phil dates yet another woman and only then, an hour into the story — and maybe months and years into Phil’s adventure — does he asks Rita what she’s interested in. Men!
Evidently Danny Rubin’s original script indicated that Phil was stuck in his time loop for 10,000 years, but Ramis told me in an interview that he and Rubin decided that the character was stuck for about 10 years, which scarcely seems long enough for all that he experiences, including in his very funny and sweet wooing of Rita. It’s easy to get caught up in his evolution and to lose sight of what MacDowell and Ramis do with Rita. As the innocent foil for Phil, she has to retain our sympathies even when we’re giggling at his elaborate, comic ruses. She could have been the film’s dupe, but she’s its soul: the woman the man has to learn to be worthy for.
I always wondered, why does the BIll Murray character get to socially-emotionally evolve over the (countless) iterations of the day, ultimately “getting the girl” while the Chris Elliott character remains mired in his smarmy muckiness the whole time? Not sure that the Elliott character was any less unlovable and in need of some character-building than the Murray character. — CHCollins, Asheville, NC
SCOTT At the heart of the Phil-Rita romance lies a marvelous temporal paradox. It takes Phil thousands of Groundhog Days to earn Rita’s love. It takes her just one day to fall in love with him. I used to think that the imbalance reflected a conventionally sentimental view of courtship, and that Rita, for all her loveliness, was a bit of a cipher, an idealized foil for the more complicated Phil.
But now I think she represents a different kind of ideal: not only the kind of person Phil might end up with, but also the kind of person he might become. Unlike other women, and unlike most Punxsutawneyites, she isn’t fooled by Phil’s early attempts to impersonate a decent person. The game he tries to run on her — figuring out what kind of man she wants and making himself into a replica of that man — doesn’t succeed. She picks up the false notes, again and again. How many times does she slap his face?
Ramis (and Murray) keep our attention focused on Phil’s path toward self-knowledge, compassion and the feeling of being at home in the universe. Rita is at the end of this path because she has always been in possession of those qualities, making her his spiritual master as well as the love of his life. It’s because of her own enlightenment that she is able to recognize his so quickly.
One-third Buddhism, one-third Augustine, one-third Nietzsche, and one-third Sartre, this metaphysical rom-com offers a conversion tale that bends and blends a recursive narrative of time, death, selfhood, nihilism, and attachment. It makes plain that our future is our past until we grasp the gift of the other in knowledge, love, and levity. — HighBar, Chicago, IL
DARGIS I like the comedy of cruelty (sometimes). But these days, given how precarious life seems right now, I am exhausted by petty, self-interested nastiness that seems to be such an acceptable part of American life. We need to be like Phil. We should work on being worthy of those we love and being worthy of being loved. Or, to put it another way:
“The optimism of the movie hints that we can not only change but improve and as a result find love. Or is love only possible when we learn to forget ourselves and think of others?” — Patricia Aakre, New York