Groundhog Day: When Nothing Matters

February 6, 2013  Leave a comment

I love the movie Groundhog Day!  And not just because it’s the first movie my wife and I ever saw together.  This movie is funny as well as profound.

What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

This isn’t just the question Bill Murray as the self-obsessed Phil Connors must ask.  It’s the question the filmmakers want us to ask ourselves. Who hasn’t felt like they were stuck repeating the same day over and over again?

  • stuck in a mortgage that’s underwater
  • stuck in an economy that won’t pay
  • stuck in a job that pays too much to leave.

Stuck. Stuck. Stuck.

As Ralph replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

So what’s the films answer?

After recovering from the initial confusion of finding himself the only person reliving the same day over and over again, The narcissistic Phil Connors is eventually transformed by his unexplained set of circumstances.

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Freedom from Consequence

Phil at first finds in this repeated day the freedom to indulge himself.  Immune from any lasting consequences, He does what he’s always wanted.

  • He drives recklessly
  • punches an annoying salesman
  • stuffs himself with junk food
  • smokes
  • robs a bank
  • manipulates a woman for sex

But what Phil Connors really wants is Rita, his coworker and producer.  He spends countless days using his power to get her into bed.

But Rita won’t budge.

No amount of manipulation will make Rita go all the way.

Prison of Emptiness

Downcast by Rita’s continued rejection, Phil begins to feel the loneliness and ultimate meaninglessness of his situation. The day has become a prison. What good is an eternity without judgement when it produces no lasting results?

Phil somehow gets it into his head that he won’t be free until the groundhog ceases to see his shadow.

He steals the groundhog and leads police and town leaders on a high speed chase.  Stuck between a literal rock and hard place, a quarry and a cliff, Phil drives himself off the cliff, killing himself and presumably the groundhog as well.

But death is no release for Phil. He’s resurrected the next morning to once again relive the same day.

Phil isn’t through though.  He feels he must die.  He

  • drops a toaster in a bathtub
  • steps out in front a bus.
  • leaps from a church steeple

And still the day goes on.

An End to Self

At last he confesses to Rita.

I’m a god.”  He says matter-of-factly.

You’re not God.” Rita says.

This isn’t a belief Phil’s simply derives from his unique situation.  It’s the faith he’s had from well before he ever set foot in Punxsutawney.

Phil thinks he’s greater than everyone else.  He thinks only of himself.

But when he gets Rita to in part “believe in him,” he’s taken back.  “Maybe it really is happening.  I mean how else could you know so much?” Phil replies, “there is no other way.  I’m not that smart.”

Rita determines to stay with him for the day.

Later that night, the two sit on his bed tossing cards into a hat.  Rita asks, “Is this what you do with eternity?” But Phil finds something more hollow in the way he spends his days.

Phil: The worst part is that tomorrow you will have forgotten all about this and you’ll treat me like a jerk again.

Rita: You’re not.

Phil: It’s all right.  I am a jerk.  It doesn’t make any difference.  I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.

Though admitting he’s a jerk is important the final line is just as telling.  We don’t typically speak of our existence rather we speak of God’s.

As the night wears on Phil reads the line “Only God can make a tree” from “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.

Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.

Through Rita’s friendship, Phil has begun to doubt his deity.

As she sleeps, he whispers to her his prayer of confession and repentance.

I’ve never seen anyone that’s nicer to people than you are.  The first time I saw you something happened to me.  I never told you, but I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could.  I don’t deserve someone like you.  But if I ever could I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.

I don’t believe its coincidence that Rita’s name comes from both the Latin and Greek word for “pearl.”  She is the “Pearl of Great Price” for which Phil must relinquish everything.

The New Man

Phil wakes up the next morning a new man.  The significance of the radio’s repeated song “I’ve Got You Babe” is at last revealed.  Though he once was all alone, obsessed with himself, Phil’s now has Rita.  And it makes all the difference in his world.

  • He gives all his cash to the homeless man he’s ignored.
  • He serves his coworkers
  • reads books
  • Takes up piano and ice-sculpting
  • greets people with a smile and a warm embrace

But there’s still a little of the old Phil that has yet to die.

Late one night he finds the homeless man shivering in a back alley.  Phil takes him to the hospital where the man suddenly dies.  The new Phil is upset but like the old Phil think’s he has control.  Despite doing everything in his power, however, day after day, the man still dies.

As Phil performs CPR on the man one last time, we hear the man exhale and the breath leave the body.  The dead man’s spirit is surrendered to God.   And so is Phil.   At last he looks away from himself up towards heaven.

And with that the cycle of days is broken. The last Groundhog day Phil experiences in Punxsutawney is way he was always met to experience it.  Free of self.

The Answer

The fact that Phil is covering a groundhog also named Phil is clearly intentional.  The Groundhog is a symbol for Phil himself.

Legend has it that if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Feb. 2, winter will last six more weeks but if doesn’t spring will come early.

I always thought it strange that the legend said the shadow indicated a continuation of winter.  Perhaps its just my Washington state bias but clouds have always represented winter while sun the summer.

So why would the clouds and not sun represent the end to winter?  Phil had it right.  It’ not the clouds or the sun its the fixation upon the shadow.  The shadow of self.

Only by looking away from ourselves to God and others will will we find true freedom and an end to the cycle of empty and meaningless days.

Matthew Scott Miller

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