Perhaps some of you recall the film "Groundhog Day" that goes back to 1991. If not quite a "cult classic" (it was too mainstream for that), it was immensely popular and was subject to multiple viewings and an endless flow of commentary and interpretation. The lead role seemed to be a perfect fit for precisely Bill Murray's type of deadpan and highly ironic sense of humor. Having enjoyed the film myself, and having seen it a few times, I suggested "Groundhog Day" for our latest Feature Film Festival with our high school students. So yesterday evening we watched the film together and I believe that it was thoroughly enjoyed by one and all. There was certainly a great deal of laughter!
Yet, the purpose of our watching films together, beyond the social significance of "getting together" as a group, is to find those films that are morally and ethically probing, in addition to their "entertainment value." Movies and movie-going dominates our popular culture, so trying to deepen that experience a bit strikes me as a sound idea. In other words, we try and choose films that will make everyone think. That is the purpose of our post-film discussions. So why choose a film such as "Groundhog Day," a film described as "zany" and "wacky?" Now, there is no doubt that "Groundhog Day" plays as a very effective and highly entertaining romantic comedy. However, this is deceptive for there are layers of meaning underneath that rather well-worn and rather predictable genre. How many people are aware of the fact that at least for a few years after its release, "Groundhog Day" was subject to a great deal of philosophical and even theological commentary and interpretation? I recall reading many insightful reviews of this film in some very "high brow" journals. What makes all of that even more intriguing is that the director, Harold Ramis, claims that all of that went beyond his intention in making the film. The creative process can be mysterious.
"Groundhog Day" is essentially a romantic comedy with a real twist. It charts the life of a rather cynical and ambitious Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Connors, played perfectly by Bill Murray. His self-absorption and unapologetic egotism are of gargantuan proportions. His charm is manipulative and self-serving. As the center of the universe, apparently everyone and everything around him is meant to satisfy his needs and desires. As he admits later in the film, he is a "real jerk." Phil the weatherman is sent to Punxsutawney, PA, in order to cover the groundhog day festivities there. In his mind, it promises to be a boring excursion into small town existence. At one point, he contemptuously calls the local population "hicks." He is accompanied by his TV station's producer, Rita, and cameraman Larry. Obviously, Phil does not want to be there, and can't leave soon enough once his responsibilities are fulfilled. However, a blizzard that he failed to predict, sends him back to the small town for at least one more night. When confronted with the blizzard, he angrily shouts back to the highway patrolman: "I make the weather!" But even he is forced to succumb to the power of nature and back to town he goes.
Yet, Phil wakes up the "next day" only to discover that it is February 2 and groundhog day all over again — exactly, down to every detail. He is now trapped in an inexplicable "time warp" that forces him to relive the same day over and over again, apparently without end — into eternity itself. It is the myth of the "eternal return" but on a daily basis in small town Punxsutawney! It is a living nightmare. The film wisely makes not even the slightest attempt at explaining this new reality. How could it? It simply is, and Phil is helplessly caught in it alone, for the same people that he meets are unaware of his predicament. They remain as static and unchanging as the surrounding environment. At first bewildered and frightened, Phil begins to make "adjustments" to his new situation. His "selfish gene" kicks into action. He soon realizes that his newly-achieved "immortality" means that his actions on one day have no consequences for there no longer exists a "tomorrow." There is no one or nothing to answer to. As it plays out in the film, it is something of a lighthearted version of Dostoevsky's aphorism, "if there is no God, then everything is permissible." Phil can now break any conceivable law — civic, social, moral, divine — with total impunity. He can now unleash his hidden passions with no restraint or "anticipatory anxiety." He can "eat, drink, and be merry" without the slightest cost to his well-being — or so it seems to him. The film exploits all of this to wonderful comic effect, and it is hard to dislike Phil in the process, "jerk" that he is. But perhaps our sympathy with Phil is grounded in the "fact" that he is living out some of our own uninspired fantasies. As in: what would you do if you won a billion dollar lottery? Or, what would you do or be like if there were no consequences to your actions?
One of the great insights of our spiritual tradition is that sin — beyond its moral, ethical and spiritually corrupting effect — is ultimately boring. Besides immediate satisfaction it remains a distortion of true life, and instead of yielding an enhanced sense of life — or "living life" as Dostoevsky would call it — sin devolves into an empty caricature of life. It is the negation of life. That is why spiritual death precedes biological death. Repetition is not a relief, but an increase of this intolerable boredom. The passions are insatiable. Sin is thus an existential vacuum that is suffocating in its long-term effects. Unconsciously, or perhaps intuitively, Phil begins to realize this after endless bouts of "wine, women and song." Daily dissipation has worn him out. He embodies the biblical "vanity of vanities." His moral universe is unaware of a "higher reality," so he looks elsewhere for relief.
Although consistently maintaining its comic touch, the film now steers us in a darker direction. Attaining a sort of pseudo-omniscience by being able to predict the daily events around him, and realizing that he cannot die, Phil begins to fancy himself a "god." Not "the God" as he admits, but a "god" nevertheless. There is nothing new left to experience so he turns to suicide. Life is boring, so he will now try death! Phil now explores the many "creative" ways in which a person can commit suicide — from driving trucks over steep cliffs, swan-diving off of tall buildings, or electrocuting himself in the bathtub. This can be interpreted as a grisly form of finding relief to the nightmare quality of having to live out the same day in isolation from a non-comprehending humanity; or the thoroughly desperate attempt to discover some more "kicks" in his morally meandering and meaningless existence.
But what actually "kicks in" at this point of the film is the slow transformation of Phil after he has bottomed-out in the manner described above. The film has a "moral," and I believe that it is effectively realized in a natural and unforced manner that is not merely sentimental or banal keeping in mind the genre and intent of this film. And again, with a lighthearted touch that probably increases its effectiveness. Remembering that this is a romantic comedy, the question becomes: will the guy — or how will the guy — get the girl in the end? Phil has resorted to endless subterfuge in order to seduce Rita the producer. Try as he might, this is the one thing he could not succeed at, regardless of his great advantage of knowing her "inside out" after living out an endless amount of days with her over and over, each one ending with a well-deserved slap to the face as Phil's real intentions become obvious. Rita is quite attractive, but more importantly she is a genuinely "good person" with a pure heart and honest intentions. Within his juvenile universe of a warped moral sensitivity Phil does not understand this.
Yet, something happens within Phil and he begins to radically change by no longer living for himself alone. He somehow breaks through his narcissistic and solipsistic one-person universe. (There is a key scene involving a death in which he realizes that he is not actually a "god"). He discovers the "other," and this discovery is transformative. He beings to live altruistically. In fact, the film can be seen on one level as the transformation of Phil Connors from a "jerk' into a genuine human being. And this will prove to be the way into the heart of Rita. Genuine virtue, as the great saints both taught and realized in their lives, is never boring as long as it does not lapse into formalism and/or moralism. It bears fruit a hundredfold when practiced with patience and the love of the "other" primarily in mind. It is the means of ascending up the ladder of divine ascent, as St. John Klimakos demonstrated. Virtue is endlessly creative, since it extends and expands our humanity beyond the limits of the self. As Phil will discover, it is also the means of breaking through the meaningless "eternal return" that has taken him down into the inferno and back. But perhaps that is something that you may want to see for yourself.
"Groundhog Day" remains consistent from start to finish. The ending is satisfying and not simply anticlimatic. The screenplay is clever, sharp and humorous, and regardless of its intentions, or lack thereof, raises many genuinely "profound" issues that can be explored and expanded upon. I may have given away too much in my commentary, but I would still recommend it if you haven't seen it before. It is highly entertaining. When we think of such topics as sin, repentance and virtue, the film lends itself to a "Christian interpretation" that is not unduly forced, but rather flows naturally and instinctively from the predicament as conceived and presented. Such discoveries can be rewarding. All in all, a worthwhile film from a variety of perspectives.
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is the parish rector of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, OH. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he teaches in the theology department.