On Around and Back Again
I feel like when you go back and revisit a classic film it's hard to be truly judgmental about it. Certain films have an aura around them, are protected from criticism by grace of the fact that they are so beloved. How to you analyze a film like Casablanca, or The French Connection, or, in this case, Groundhog Day when everyone already knows all there is to know about the film? What are fans of the movie even looking for you to say?
Make no mistake, Groundhog Day is a classic of the comedy genre. While Bill Murray has starred in a number of films that have become beloved by his fans -- Ghostbusters (which is great because of Murray), Stripes (which I hated), Caddyshack (which... ugh) -- Groundhog Day has taken on a life of its own, transcending being just a "Bill Murray" film to become the catalyst of an entire genre.
Not that Time Loop films were created by Groundhog Day, more that this film refined the concept and setup all the ideas that would later be toyed with by other films (like Happy Death Day and Palm Springs). But, of course, it's Bill Murray that anchors the film, his character going through the five stages of grief with Murray both giving one of his best performances while still keeping his act grounded in the sarcastic banter he was known for. It's a balancing act that Murray pulls off perfectly.
The film is all about Murray's character, Phil Collins. The newscaster, who is a prima donna at the start of the film, slowly becomes a better person over the course of his time in the loop (by the writer and director's account, Phil spends 10,000 years in the time loop), eventually remaking himself until he's the hero of the town. The movie plays this up as a big learning moment for him, and it is, in a way, but when you go back and actually analyze the film, there are some seams that show.
For starters, his transformation, and all the beats Phil hits, are based on the things his love interest, Andie MacDowell's Rita Hanson, desires. Is he really changing to suit his best self, or is it just something he does because he wants to win over a girl? The film does highlight a little off the creepiness and esperation of Phil chasing after a woman who has no memory of every day they've spent together (lending a bit of shading from 50 First Dates when you go back and view the movie again) but in the end the film treats it as a just reward for Phil that he won over the woman of his dreams and finally gets to exit the loop.
But then, what about the rest of the town? Phil has been coming to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for years, and every year he's been a dick to everyone around him because he thinks the annual Groundhog Day Festival is a total crock of shit. But if you cut out all the time in the middle of the film, from when the loop starts to when it ends, you have a guy that goes from being a dick one day to suddenly the hero of the town the next. Does no one remember how he used to be? Why are they so instantly trusting?
Rita gets it even worse, really, because Phil is an absolute ass to her the day before, the first day they meet (as she's his new producer for the TV station they both work at), and then the next day she's suddenly falling in love with him? Yes, Phil spends 10,000 years in the loop but no one else does, so while the audience feels like Phil has earned his eventual reward, Rita has known the guy for about 24 hours. It's a tad bit weird to think she'd just suddenly accept this asshole into her life just because he helped a couple of people around town and plays the piano really well all of a sudden.
And that doesn't even get into the fact that Phil is completely and utterly ruined for real life now. He's built his entire reality around a single day in this town. Now that he can't "predict" every event because he has no memory about what's going to happen next, how will he cope? Can he even function as a basic human being anymore or will the fact that new things are constantly happening all around him completely cripple him mentally. Ten thousand years. That's a lot of time to know everything that will happen and then suddenly have a whole new world ahead of you.
The fact is that Phil essentially has to live in Punxsutawney now, which the movie alludes to in the end, because there's no way he could handle anything else. He was, in effect, the god of these people for a whole day and he has every brick and pebble of the town memorized. Even if he can function with new events going on around him (and somehow doesn't get arrested for the bank robbery he clearly kept committing every day so he'd have spending cash), he can never go back to his old life as the rest of the world would be too daunting a place for him to bear.
Rita has essentially anchored herself to a guy that will refuse to leave this town, so she either has to quit her job one day after starting it, or she'll immediately need to leave Phil. Not that I can see this relationship lasting a long time with all the mental issues Phil is going to have adapting back to normal life again. What happens the next time someone dies in the town? Will he blame himself because he can't go back to the start of the day and change it? He used to be able to. He might even begin to wish he was back in the time loop so at least he could control everything.
Not that the movie wants you to analyze it this closely. It's a fun movie with a very solid arc for the character in the moment. It is one of my favorite comedies, make no mistake. But once you really start to think about it you have to wonder how long it took before Rita left Phil and Phil either killed himself out of the fear of change or ended up in a mental hospital preaching about being a god that could predict everything. This time loop destroyed this poor man.
Happy Groundhog Day?