What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.
My favourite Stargate episode is season 3, episode 14: “Window of Opportunity.” A lonely scientist tries to save his wife by going back in time, but he only succeeds in starting a time loop that repeats a chunk of the day over and over again. Both O’Neill and Teal’c are aware of what’s happening; at first they’re confused, then angry, then doing everything they’ve always wanted without fear of repercussions, then trying feverishly to fix the problem.
I always liked that episode because it married humour with an outlandish and unsolvable problem, while simultaneously dealing with the human condition and what it does when faced with the idea of no consequences. Basically — and I didn’t realize it until I watched Groundhog Day for the first time — I liked it because it mimicked said movie, only with familiar characters and context.
But for all that I liked “Window of Opportunity,” Groundhog Day was so much better. And even though technically it isn’t older than I am, I went ahead and reviewed it anyway.
Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a local weatherman who dreams of ditching his job for a major news network. As the “talent,” he resents being forced to go to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to report on their annual Groundhog Day (February 2, FYI) festivities. But when he does, he finds himself reliving the same day over and over and over again.
After he gets over his initial panic, Phil sees it as an opportunity to pig out on every item on the menu at the local diner, use the information he learns every day to his advantage, and generally act like a jerk to everyone around him. Then he starts getting closer to his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and tries to put the moves on her. But despite how many days he does over, getting their interactions exactly right, the night always ends with a slap.
Phil doesn’t see any way out and tries suicide… again and again and again. Nothing sticks, though, and he pours out his frustrations to Rita. This leads to a near-perfect day together. And although he wakes up alone as usual, he’s inspired to start living his life differently. He takes up piano lessons, tries to avert the death of a homeless old man, and uses his intimate knowledge of the townsfolk to improve their lives, even if it’s only for a day.
This culminates in a single day of Phil being a legitimately amazing person: delivering a heartfelt speech at the groundhog ceremony, doing the Heimlich on a choking man, catching a boy who falls out of a tree, convincing a jittery bride to walk down the aisle, saving three women with a flat tire, wowing everyone with his piano skills during the evening celebrations. Rita notices, and she and Phil spend a real, honest-to-goodness night together without him trying to get in her pants. When he wakes up, it’s February 3 — and the loop is broken.
I remember saying some fairly uncharitable things in my review of Ghostbusters about Bill Murray and his performance. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s an overrated movie. But Murray has charisma here. He goes from being a run-of-the-mill jerk to a genuinely great guy, and you can absolutely believe the change. It’s without a doubt one of the best comedic performances I’ve ever seen, complete with deadpan delivery and a self-assurance that’s hard not to enjoy.
Phil Connors has probably the realest reaction anyone would have in that situation: confusion, then liberation, dissatisfaction, depression, optimism, and finally self-improvement. I mean, I’ve thought about it a bunch of times: what would I do if there weren’t a tomorrow?
After going to work over and over and getting tired of working on the same proposal for a month straight without any progress the next morning, I’d probably start calling in sick. (That’s not a commentary on my job, which I love. It’s to make time for what comes next, which is important.) Then I’d work my way through every TV show I ever wanted to watch and every book I wanted to read while sitting on the couch eating those new birthday cake-flavoured Oreos by the handful. (Told you it was important.)
Then I’d probably sleep a lot, because sleeping is nice and now it doesn’t matter if I waste all my time in bed. Then I’d travel everywhere I possibly could in the 24 hours before I looped again and experience everything in every one of those places (and also I like planes, so there’s that). Then I might finally learn to play the bass guitar that’s been sitting in my closet since I was eighteen. Then I’d probably be bored out of my skull and start writing my book in my head, because that’s the only place to save it until I can get it down on paper.
After that… I don’t know. I’m not like Phil. I wouldn’t be able to connect with people and get their life stories like he does. I would probably try to better myself at first, but I don’t know if I could manage it with every day feeling like a reset button and losing all my progress. Honestly, after a certain length of eternity, I have no idea what I’d do anymore.
I think what I’m trying to say is that Phil displays a huge depth of character, even when he starts out as a cynical husk of a man. He could wallow, and he did. He could be depressed, and he did. He could improve, and he did. Everything he could possibly do in that town in that single day, he did, over and over and over again. He seized the absolute crap out of that day until there was no more seizing and no more improvement to be had, and only then did it end.
And by that end, Phil was a piano virtuoso, a skilled ice sculptor, steeped in French poetry, intimately familiar with everyone in town, and head over heels in love with a woman that only twenty-four hours earlier he’d expressed no interest in knowing. I love the message here, that when given enough time and the right amount of effort, any person can become anything they want.
On that note, let’s move on to the one thing I didn’t like about the movie: Rita. To start out with, yes, she’s adorable and has a cute little twangy accent. But she also has really specific and absolutely unmeetable expectations in men. I mean, it takes Phil lifetimes to become a person worthy of her astronomically high specifications, and I don’t think she appreciates that effort nearly as much as she should.
And for all that Phil says she’s an amazing person, kind to children and strangers and what have you, we don’t actually see any of that. How do we know that Rita is this incredible specimen of a human being who farts rainbows when all she does is A) harangue Phil, B) not believe Phil, and C) slap Phil?
Rita seems to take it as a personal offence that Phil doesn’t drink to world peace like she does (barf), and she makes a crack about the fact that he can’t get it up during their amazing night together: “Phil, why weren’t you like this last night? You just fell asleep.” Yeah, because he spent decades trying to meet your unreasonable expectations, you witch. He’s a little tired.
And at the end of it all, she’s all too willing to agree to a “forever” with Phil, even though in reality she’s known him for all of one day. And I think that’s what gets me: she discovers that this guy is everything she’s ever wanted, so she immediately figures, “What the heck, let’s move to Nowheresville and make babies.” I know she said she wanted that stuff, but after one freaking day?
Believe me, this is one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed it immensely and had to keep from waking my roommate with my laughter in the middle of the night while I was watching it. I think Bill Murray is a gem, every scene is gold, and Groundhog Day should be required viewing in schools.
But I also think that Phil Connors could do better. If he’d picked an easier girl to fall in love with, he could’ve been out of that loop a whole lot sooner and without so many obscure skills that only appeal to one particular woman. When will it be practical for him to know ice sculpting and card tricks? When he’s invited to all those midwinter magicians’ club dinners?
When I get right down to it, I think that’s what bothers me: when one person shapes their life and their personality around another person. It takes two full and distinct people to make a relationship, not one person and their clone. Those kinds of relationships don’t work out because the shaped-around person either takes the shaping person for granted or gets bored.
And wouldn’t you? If your partner liked everything you did and agreed with everything you said, wouldn’t you get tired of it? So doesn’t it stand to reason that at some point, whether it’s ten or twenty or forty years down the road, Rita’s gonna get tired of Phil or he’s gonna get tired of being taken advantage of. And the marriage and the kids and the white picket fence in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, will be kaput.
Even though I raise these objections about the motives and meanings of the movie, they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Questions like “How did the time loop start and why?” and “Why did Phil kissing Rita make it stop?” and “What’s the deal with that weird couple who likes Wrestlemania?” don’t matter. The movie doesn’t bring them up and it doesn’t answer them, so I don’t feel the need to do it, either. People who are much smarter than me have already done that.
What does matter is one simple question, the crux of the matter, the entire point of the movie (at least in my mind): if you could live a day without consequences, what would you do? Some people try to live like that every day, but you can’t. There will always be consequences, whether good or bad or somewhere fuzzy in between. And I think that’s a good thing, because what’s the point of doing anything if you can’t hit the Save button at the end of every day?
So I guess the best we can do is what Phil did at the end: take the opportunity to make yourself as good a person as you can possibly be. Live life to the fullest, and all that jazz. Learn something new. Eat lots of sugar. Have deep, meaningful conversations with strangers. Kidnap a groundhog. Except maybe don’t kidnap a groundhog, because there will almost definitely be consequences for that. Pervert.
Final Grade: A
- Hey, Harold Ramis directed this! I liked him much better here than in Ghostbusters.
- So it turns out that Punxsutawney Phil is totally real. I mean, he wasn’t the groundhog in the movie, but he’s a real thing.
- I did a double take when I realized that Larry (Chris Elliott) also plays Lily’s dad on HIMYM. Weird, right?
- I seriously hate that Sonny and Cher song now. Like, almost as much as that one song from Pitch Perfect.
- How on earth does a background in French poetry qualify you to work in broadcast journalism? Trick question: it qualifies you to work at Starbucks. It’s like political science, philosophy, or an English degree: you can’t do squat with that.
- Phil: I’m a god. Rita: You’re God? Phil: I’m a god. I’m not the God… I don’t think. Me: Phil, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!
- I wonder if anyone else has thought about the fact that, since he’d likely given up after the water was always cold, Phil went for however many years without taking a shower. That is all.