It’s February 2nd, Groundhog Day, the day when we have a rodent predicting our weather instead of the usual … well, fill in your own joke here. For the last 20 years, it’s also the day when we watch the movie of the same name. I’ve loved Bill Murray since his original stint on Saturday Night Live (the upgrade from Chevy Chase to Murray was like getting rid of your Kia and buying a Porsche), and Groundhog Day finds Murray at the top of his Murrayness.
What if there was no tomorrow?; there wasn’t one today!
It is a deceptive movie. It appears slight on the surface, a throwaway comedy, or perhaps even romantic comedy. But repeated viewings of the repeated day yield repeated pleasures, along with some new ones. We discover that Murray’s journey is one that many of us travel (albeit with much less humor).
I would love to stay here and talk with you … but I’m not going to.
Murray is Phil, a snarky weatherman for a local station in Pennsylvania. He matches the description Danny Kaye uses of Bing Crosby in White Christmas — a lonely, miserable man — and he likes to make everyone around him miserable as well. As a weatherman in Pennsylvania, he has to go to Punxatawney to see the groundhog on Groundhog Day, and he hates it.
He goes with his new producer Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot), shoots a sarcastic segment, gets caught in a blizzard that according to his own earlier weather report isn’t supposed to be happening (“I make the weather!” he tells the highway patrolman who closes the road) and ends up having to spend an extra night in Punxatawney. But when he wakes up, it’s Groundhog Day all over again. And the next day, it’s Ground Day again.
It still just once a year, isn’t it?
It takes him a few days to get over the shock, but when he does, he decides that a fresh start every day means he can do whatever he wants. He (somewhat ironically) spends a day setting up a one-night stand. He robs an armored car. He binges on his eating. He carpe’s the heck out of the dium (Robin Williams would be proud).
But, like many of us, Phil grows tired of that kind of living pretty fast. He turns his attention to Rita, but since he knows his personality won’t win her, he spends many (repeated) days memorizing everything about her he can. It builds up to a really nice day and evening spent with her, but then he, again, like many of us, pushes too far too fast (“I love you!”), and winds up slapped in the face as he watches her storm out of his room. That scene repeats itself another eight or nine times, each day the slap progressively coming quicker as he loses his ability to fake it.
What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
Discouraged by the endless days in Punxatawney, angered at his inability to make nice with his producer, Phil falls into depression. He proceeds to kill himself in several ways, first kidnapping the groundhog and driving off a cliff, then electrocuting himself, stepping in front of an 18-wheeler, taking a dive off several-story building, and so on. Each day he wakes up with a brand new body but the same depressed and bitter spirit. He eventually runs out of new ways to do himself in.
Sometimes, people just die.
We finally begin to see a spark of a generous spirit in Phil. He takes up reading literature, piano, being nice to the cameraman. He helps a homeless old beggar he’s ignored every day so far, but the old man dies. The next day he tries to help him even more, earlier, but the old man still dies. He quotes Chekhov in his weather segment.
This is a changed Phil. In Ebert’s words, he is “not different, but better.” He fixes flats for old ladies, catches kids falling out of trees, gives the Heimlich to a man choking on a piece of steak. It takes a few viewings, but you eventually realize that Phil has spent a lot of time seeing and learning exactly when each of those things would happen and put himself in exactly the right place every time. He’s spent his time learning how to help others instead of how to be miserable.
I can’t even make a collie stay.
And that leads to another evening with Rita, only this one is relaxed instead of uptight trying to remember everything, genuine instead of fake, effortless instead of “a lot of planning.” When he wakes up the next day, she’s still there and it’s February 3rd. (Interestingly, the movie makes clear that nothing happened the night before.) A new day has dawned, and love was the catalyst.
Am I right or am I right? Right, right, right?
Living however we want to while paying no attention to the consequences.
Trying to fake being someone we’re not.
Becoming depressed when the first two don’t result in what we were looking for.
Being transformed by love.
This is a journey many take. It is a journey some are in the middle of. It is a journey that some never get out of, repeating their own Groundhog Day, because they can never get past the third step.
What the Bible tells us is that the only love in step four that can really transform us is Jesus’ — His love for us, and our love for Him. Everything else falls under step two, trying to change ourself, trying to fake being something we’re not. The progression we see in Phil is one I’ve (partially) experienced, and one I’ve seen experienced in countless others’ lives. It is real, just like waking up every day and feeling like it’s the same as yesterday is real.
So every year we watch Groundhog Day, because we love watching a changed life.
And later today, we’re going to the church we are a member of, for the same reason.