Review: Groundhog Day

Every now and then I am either compelled, reminded, or otherwise happen across the chance to see a movie that apparently the rest of the world has already enjoyed. Even if I am more than twenty years late to the party.

Groundhog Day is a story about Phil Connor, a rather selfish and egocentric character who I can best describe as likeable only in that sort of way that Bill Murray can so lovingly depict. In other words, Murray plays himself, though with a few extra layers of smarminess and egocentrism.

But then, possibly every character I’ve ever seen Billy Murray play (even as himself) is usually among the most self-assured people in whatever movie he graces.

At any rate, what makes Groundhog Day so memorable is the Time Loop Trope it apparently named. According to TVtropes.org, this movie isn’t the first example of the trope, but it did introduce it to popular culture. And to pretty good effect; Groundhog Day is considered a commercial and critical success, lauded by many as a beloved classic.

One wonders how I didn’t get around to seeing this sooner. It came out in 1993, which incidentally is the time of my earliest memory with a date attached to it — being in elementary school, writing the heading atop some essay or assignment, and constantly being reminded by peers and the teacher:

“No, Jesse, it’s not 1993 anymore. The year ended last week.”

More to the point, Groundhog Day is considered a Fantasy – but not in the sense the likes of which I usually write about on this blog. While there is arguable time travel going on here, there is no real science-fiction element either. Even in a number of fantasy stories, there are explanations for the events, even if such events are “hand waved” away with a simple solution:

BecauseMagic

But in this film, no explanation is offered, and from the very beginning we’re forced to follow along with the protagonist. Explanationless.

And you know, I think the movie really benefits from that. Without any attempt to really make the situation believable, we can instead sit back and focus on what really matters: the characters and how they react to the setting and each other. Besides, it’s more or less a comedy, and comedies aren’t known for the most feasible of plots.

Leaving the “explanation” portion of a story like this blank frees the writer(s) of a lot of responsibility, too. I for one am thoroughly glad there was no shoehorned reason for the Time Loop. It could have easily been terribly screwed up, especially if there was some sort of religious undertone to the events in the story.

Which is something that can be found (by those who look for it) anywhere.

This can backfire, though. There’re YouTube shows and other blogs dedicated to everything wrong with certain movies, or even just endings. Bad endings, open endings, unexplained endings, surprise endings, and cliffhangers. I did not get a sense of any of these having completed Groundhog Day. I only had that sense of bottled-finality and “all’s well,” in typical early-nineties Hollywood movies, a type of ending I’m not necessarily opposed to, but it does get old.

Two-thirds into Groundhog Day, though, I was right alongside the protagonist in his explorations of ending the Time Loop. Even the montage of suicides resulted in nothing but the snap-back to the six-o-clock indicator that the next Loop had begun. Black comedy at it’s best.

I, for one, readily confess that I might’ve found myself driven quite mad were I in a similar situation. Phil Connors certainly loses his mind — multiple times — but more than anything, this is a story of change. The character changes.

That’s an essential element to an effective story I’ve touched on before.

After getting over a bout of spiralling depression, madness and despair, Phil Connors sets about utilizing what is, at this point of the story, now viewed as an abundance of the most valuable resource in the 3rd Dimension: time.

Phil Connors discovers he has unlimited time.

The Persistence of Memory, by the Dali Lama. Wait, no — Salvador Dali. I always get the two confused.

Whether or not he’s actually aging during the Time Loop is uncertain (though I personally think that roughly a year of groundhog days has come and gone), but he certainly uses his time well: paying $1,000 to assure himself a piano lesson every day, for who knows how many days. We see him reading heavy literature, perfecting ice sculpture, and arriving at various places around town just in time to help people out with problems small and dire.

Catching a kid falling from a tree is possibly a bit more impactful to the space/time continuum than changing the flat of a car for three old ladies, but then, the movie doesn’t explore that aspect of things. Rather, it focuses on the fact that in spite of there being no consequences, Bill Murray’s character comes to utilize his time well.

The lack of explanation for the Groundhog Day Loop also leaves it open that it could, at least within the precepts of the story, happen to any one of us, at any time. We are then offered the question: What would we do in such a situation?

I suspect that the majority of us would follow through with the rough scheme that Phil Connors did. After the initial adjustment, there would be some experimentation. Following assurance of there being no consequences, there would be indulgence. Theft, breaking the law in various other ways, and for some of us, perhaps even the manipulation of people we find sexually appealing. Eventually, though, that would get boring, and the next stage would be to find a way out.

Providing the Death Clause is in effect (if you die, you still wake up at the start of the “next” day), then, as Black Sabbath once put it, I suspect we would all be going off the rails on a crazy train.

Would the whole redemption phase happen for all of us? Is the idea of change and redemption required for said Time Loop to end, or would similar Time Loops for other people sometimes end prematurely, before certain individuals had a chance to grow? In such a case they’d just start the next day a broken and mentally crippled person.

I suppose that’d be a slightly different kind of movie.

In any case, I dug it. It has a slow start – enough so to empty my living room of English Learners after the first twenty minutes – but the payoff is well worth it. Go see it if you haven’t already, and if you have, hey, I guess we just got something more in common.

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