Note: This was originally written in December 2012 but published here in October 2014.
There’s something about ‘redemption’ that has inspired so many great films.
Picture Taxi Driver without Travis Bickel’s twisted salvation. Imagine The Searchers without Ethan Edward’s poignant exit from civilization into the sands of Monument Valley. Imagine The Shawshank Redemption without… well… the “Redemption.”
It can’t be done.
Redemption is integral to cinema. It is the ultimate form of empathy. It translates beautifully to the big screen and is perhaps the consummate character arc in all of cinema, literature and art; and everyone from Scorsese to Murnau has embraced its emotive power. But one of the greatest examples of onscreen redemption came not from any giant of international cinema but instead from the man who brought you Ghostbusters. Yes – Ghostbusters.
I am of course referring to Harold Ramis, and he (along with screenwriter Danny Rubin) created what I regard as one of the finest pieces of cinema ever to grace the silver screen – That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers. It’s Groundhog Day!
Groundhog Day is one of those films that, upon initial viewing, can be easily labeled as a generic, knock-about comedy: the kind of which that poses no real depth or substantial profundity, but is perfectly capable of sustaining a smile on its audience during its running time.
In his original review of Groundhog Day, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times had this exact response.
However, years later, he returned to the film, reassessed it and acknowledged that he had greatly undervalued it. He later wrote that, “Groundhog Day is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable.” He stated the film, “unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.”
I must confess that I, myself, much like Mr. Ebert, originally overlooked the brilliance of Groundhog Day. I remember seeing a charming tale of a modern day Dickensian Scrooge, but a film that is essentially one recurrent gag.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the film. I thought it was brilliantly executed and tremendously funny. I was charmed by the script and moved by the story. But I didn’t see it as a genuinely philosophical and thoughtful piece of filmmaking. And I certainly didn’t see it as the cinematic gem that I do today. But through each subsequent viewing the film matured in my eyes. I still saw the hilarious gags, the brilliant performances, the charm, wit and intellect that made me love the film to begin with – but I began to see so much more. I began to see a true cinematic masterpiece.
I must point out that I’m very skeptical of the use of the word, “masterpiece”. It is one of the most over-used words in the English language and I try to use it as sparely as possible. But in this case, no other word can suffice.
The story of Phil Connors’ road to redemption is one of the most uplifting in all of cinema’s history. It’s the kind of film Frank Capra would have made in his prime. It’s a film that will leave you in stiches one moment, blissfully smiling the next, and then pensively contemplating issues that have occupied some of the finest minds that ever lived. And if that doesn’t entice you, I don’t know what will.
The story of Groundhog Day is a very simple one – deceptively simple, however. It tells the tale of an irritable, insensitive weatherman (played to perfection by Bill Murray in his greatest screen performance) who must go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to report on the annual groundhog festival. It goes without saying that Phil isn’t exactly enthralled about this task.
He reluctantly carries out his job only later to discover that, due to a blizzard, he cannot return home until tomorrow.
But tomorrow never comes.
He then wakes up the following morning – and every morning thereafter – to find he is reliving the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over again.
Phil is naturally perplexed. He cannot make sense of it. However, he soon adopts the philosophy that if there is no tomorrow he can do whatever he wants. Instead of allowing circumstances to impose themselves on him, he takes control of them. This is aided by the fact that he has literally all the time in the world and the safety of knowing what’s about to happen next. But this hedonistic attitude quickly fades.
He begins to see himself as though trapped in one of Dante’s inner circles of Hell, developing despair, anguish and eventually the wish to die (which he accomplishes countless times but only to awake the following morning right back where he started). He then considers the possibility of himself being some sort of a god. But through failed attempts at trying to prevent an old man’s inevitable dead, his confidence weakens and his empathy is turned towards those around him. His worldview has been inverted and his transition would move even the hardest of hearts.
One of the greatest strengths of Groundhog Day is that this personal nightmare lasts for an unspecified amount of time. It could be a year. It could be ten years. It could be ten thousand years – we just don’t know. We are also – rather satisfyingly – never given an explanation for Phil’s predicament. If we were to be given one, the film would not have the same impact. Thankfully, however, it remains entirely open to our own interpretations.
As well as a touching piece of cinema, Groundhog Day is also a profoundly existential film. It deals with very heavy, meditative subjects, the kinds of which have been tackled by the likes of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It explores the sort of ideas that Camus and Sartre used to ponder in Parisian cafés whilst delicately sipping coffee, contemplating the meaning of existence. The film shows that through no longer clinging to denial and hatred over the conditions of life and death, we should instead learn to accept our situation for what it is – subsequently finding purpose and compassion – A deeply existential philosophy.
The act of reliving the same day over and over again and discovering the futility of life and the pointlessness of existence could easily be the plot of a work by Franz Kafka. But what Groundhog Day does is that it includes an enormously heartfelt message: a message that relates to life, death, the universe and everything; and it does all this with hilarity and intelligence whilst never falling into sentimentality or farce. The film speaks to the human condition on a most profound level and is a truly universal piece of filmmaking, and a timeless piece of art.
If you think, however, that a comedy that ponders the meaning of life is a contradiction, well think again. Groundhog Day is without a doubt one of the funniest and most uplifting films I’ve ever seen. With its endlessly quotable dialogue and brilliantly drawn characters it’s hard not to fall in love with it – even if you don’t get the weighty subject matter behind the laughs. It manages to make us care and sympathise for a deeply embittered character and gives us no other alternative but to become completely swept up on his journey of self-discovery.
In the end, Groundhog Day shows that only through entrapment can one learn true freedom as Phil Connors has become a more honourable, loving and moral individual. This was a persona that was once trapped within him, only be freed by trapping him.
In the run up to Christmas, Groundhog Day (along with, It’s a Wonderful Life) are the perfect films to dig out and watch with loved ones huddled round the TV screen –preferably with a big roaring fire and a plate of mince pies. With a message that perfectly encapsulates the seasonal spirit, Groundhog Day is never more fitting.
Oh, and anyone who does not have a smile on their face by the end, or has not had their faith in humanity restored, well…
I would love to stay here and talk with you…
But I’m not going to.