I think Bill Murray may be my favorite modern-day comedian. Like Groucho Marx or W.C. Field he is best at playing a wise guy who uses his wise-acre commentary as a defense against the craziness around him. If you look at his work in Stripes, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Little Shop of Horrors, Quick Change, Groundhog Day or What about Bob you see that he is basically playing the same character. For most comedians that would get tiresome (as with Adam Sandler), but Murray has a natural gift for off-the-cuff one-liners so his act works with almost any formula.
With Groundhog Day, he found a formula that beautifully plays to his style of humor. He plays Phil Conners, a smug, self-obsessed weather man who is irritated that he is still stuck with his job in the same tiny Pittsburgh TV station. He reminds his co-worker that he is waiting for the networks to call and offer him something bigger. His bitter attitude toward his job has entered a passive-aggressive state and that extends to both his co-workers and the viewing audience.
He hates most of his assignments but he reserves his biggest dread for the job of covering the annual Groundhog Day celebration in the tiny hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This is where the town’s population gathers every February second to see the town officials in top hats pull out a live groundhog to see what the little rat predicts for the coming winter. Phil has been covering this nonsense for the past three years.
Punxsutawney is the kind of friendly, happy little Norman Rockwell town that is so far outside Phil’s bitter nature that he plans to beat it out of town as soon as his assignment is finished. Dragging along his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), Phil’s disdain for this assignment even shows up on the air: “This is the one time when television fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” He is excited to be leaving town, but the fates aren’t with him and he is trapped in Punxsutawney by a blizzard that he earlier reported would pass right over.
Then something bizarre happens. He wakes up the next morning to find that February 2nd has started all over again. To Phil, the day has repeated but to everyone else, it is exactly the same. Everyone does the same things, says the same things and goes through the same motions. He has the same conversation with the tenants at the Bed and Breakfast; he passes the same homeless man (Les Podewell); he is accosted by the same annoying high school acquaintance (Stephen Toblowsky) and, of course, he has to cover the Groundhog Day festival all over again.
Everyone except Phil is completely oblivious to the fact that the day has repeated itself. He doesn’t really try to figure out why this bizarre event has taken place but initially can only hope that it will stop very soon. For Phil, repeating the same day in a town that he hates, this is a nightmare of which he broods: “I was in The Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over?”
The answer comes in Phil’s journey, as Groundhog Day becomes the complex story of a man in a ridiculous circumstance that progressively changes his very soul. As the day repeats itself Phil goes through a series of mental changes. He begins in total bafflement, attempting to get a handle on the situation. Then he enters into a state of self-destruction. Realizing that since the day will start all over the next morning, whatever he does the previous night won’t have any consequences. One night he tries to cheat death by driving a car down a set a railroad tracks, reminding himself of all the rules he’s been taught from childhood and then proclaiming “I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore!”
Then he realizes that he can use the daily repeats to get what he wants as when he spends several days getting small pieces of information about a pretty girl (Marita Geraghty) in order to sleep with her. That sets him off on a mission to romance Rita, getting small pieces of information about her through several daily conversations in order to win her heart. In several of the daily run-throughs he picks up small pieces of information about her that he can use on her to win her heart. Of course, Rita doesn’t know that Phil’s day is repeating so, for her, he is simply knowledgeable about her life and her interests. It eventually backfires when she suspects that she is being manipulated. Worse, it backfires over and over and over. Phil realizes that it is always going to backfire on him no matter how many times he tries to correct his mistakes.
Rita repeated rejections cause Phil to fall into a suicidal depression. But that doesn’t end the cycle and he tries several means of killing himself until he decides that he must be immortal. He tells her that he believes that he is a god and demonstrates by telling her pieces of information about the townsfolk that he has accumulated. “Maybe the real God uses tricks” Phil reasons, “Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”
He believes that since he has gotten to intimately know everyone in town through the daily repeats he can somehow make their lives better and this is where Groundhog Day finds its heart. He becomes a genial and good man, spreading joy, happiness and good will wherever he can. However, that only works up to a point. There is a painful moment that breaks his God-complex when he tries to save the starving homeless man from dying but realizes that the man’s fate is beyond his control. That becomes a turning point for Phil. Realizing that he is immortal but not infallible, he tries being the best man he can be. He learns as much as he can including piano lessons and ice sculpture and becomes an honored man in the town.
What has always come best from Bill Murray is a kind of flat, dead-pan delivery, a manner of looking at bizarre situations and sizing them up in a manner reserved only for the likes of people like W.C. Field or Groucho Marx. Remember in Ghostbusters when he comes to the apartment of his possessed girlfriend “I make it a point never to get involved with possessed people”. Or the moment in Tootsie when his male roommate fusses over his girdle – “I think we’re getting into a weird area here”. Or as the dentistry addict in Little Shop of Horrors “I think I need a root canal. I definitely need a long, slow root canal.”
Groundhog Day is right at home for Murray because it affords him at least two dozen moments like that. It is the perfect playground for his kind of humor. Yet, it is something more than that. Here he begins by playing a man who is smug and self-important and slowly transforms into a man who is happy. He has a difficult task of opening the film playing a perfect jerk, a role that in other hands might have made the film insufferable. What Murray does with the introductory scenes is present a man who is not boiling or screaming or lashing out but who has his resentment and cynicism burning just under the surface. It has become so ground-in that it has become his very nature.
What takes place after the daily repeats start is the reconditioning of his soul. He begins to learn, to contemplate, to theorize and finally he begins to learn things. As he runs through the roll-call of bafflement, confusion, aggravation, misery and despair, he finds that – much like Superman – he can make a difference but he can’t do everything. It is more fulfilling, he finds, to be a good man.