Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliot
Director: Harold Ramis
Screenplay: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
In this special edition of Reel Heroes we go back 20 years to revisit one of our favorite heroes: Phil Conners from Groundhog Day.
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
Greg, this is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s no coincidence that it’s due to the strength of its hero character. For me, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is one of the most memorable movie heroes I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching on the big screen.
It is a great movie and a lot of fun. Phil Conners is Pittsburgh’s most egotistical weatherman. We meet him on Groundhog Days where he has a special assignment to Punxsutawney to report on Punxsutawney Phil – the groundhog who reveals whether winter will last another six weeks, or if Spring has sprung. Phil and his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) are snowed in when a blizzard hits the town. They have to stay the night, but when Phil wakes up the next morning he finds he’s stuck in a time loop – Groundhog Day is repeating. Every morning he wakes up and every morning it’s Groundhog Day again.
At first, Phil uses the repetition of the day to steal money and to manipulate women to sleep with him. Yet the one woman he grows to love, his producer Rita, won’t succumb to his advances. He grows depressed when he realizes that his methods will never allow him to achieve real intimacy with Rita. He becomes suicidal, believing he is stuck, alone forever, in a dull town on an endlessly cold winter day.
In the end, however, he resolves that if this is to be his only day, he is going to make it the best day he can. He learns everything there is to know about each person in town. He memorizes every recurring event and schedules himself to arrive at just the nick of time to catch a boy from falling from a tree, he replaces a flat tire, he even saves the mayor’s life by performing the Heimlich maneuver.
Greg, what every movie-maker should learn from this film is the importance of hero transformation. We see so many movies where the hero does great deeds but never shows any real change. Right before our eyes, Phil Connors evolves from a disgustingly self-absorbed jerk to an enlightened altruist. It’s fun to watch, but also very moving because many of us can relate to his feelings of emptiness and his futile attempts to remedy his situation. We are then witness to what one can do to turn one’s life around.
What really struck me about Phil is how he uses his situation to attempt to get Rita to go to bed with him. Every day he asks Rita out and learns something new about her. The more he learns about her, the more he seems like the perfect man for her – as if he is reading her mind. But at the end of every day, she sees through his plan and slaps his face. This is Phil’s lowest point. He realizes he can never have her and goes into a deep depression. He gives up his plan and goes about killing himself daily, only to wake up each morning on Groundhog Day again.
Rita plays a fascinating role here. She is not only his love interest, but his mentor, too. This is rare but it works very effectively, as Phil falls in love with Rita precisely because she holds the key to his transformation. Her wisdom, compassion, and optimism trigger his metamorphosis. Another fascinating character is the villain in the story. It turns out that Phil Connors is his own villain. He has to slay his own demons to complete his hero journey.
This movie is a very misleading comedy — it makes you laugh, but you can’t help but feel that the movie delivers a serious and powerful message about life, priorities, and the secret to finding true love.
It’s only after Phil completely gives up on attaining Rita that he begins refining himself. He focuses on becoming the best Phil he can be. He becomes selfless, doing everything he can to help the members of the community. Once Phil stops thinking about himself, he can give Rita the attention she deserves. And it’s this selfless quality that makes Phil a man Rita can love. She finally stays the night with him – a chaste night of slumber. And the spell is broken. Phil wakes up and it’s the day after. And he receives his wish: he has won Rita and he can get on with his life.
You can’t get a better story of redemption than this one. Phil’s actions take him from the most suicidal low possible to the highest of emotional heights. After just composing our tribute to Roger Ebert, it’s nice to know that Ebert placed this movie on his list of “Great Movies”. The film was also added to the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
You can hardly get higher praise than that. Groundhog Day is an example of how heroes set the standard for our ideal behavior. Phil had to start out immensely flawed in order to become someone we would recognize as iconicly good.
This is Bill Murray’s greatest role and finest performance in the movies. The movie employs a unique premise to teach us that whatever our flaws or circumstances, we can redeem ourselves. It’s one of the best movies, and best heroes, of the 1990s. And that’s why we place it in our Hero Hall of Fame.