Review: "Groundhog Day"

Imbolc today - a.k.a. Candlemas, a.k.a. Groundhog Day. In old Celtic reckoning, an agricultural calendar, this cross-quarter day was seen as the start of spring. In its honor, the Well had a showing of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

If you haven't seen it, check it out. While it's probably shelved in the "romantic comedy" category, it's a surprisingly spiritual film. In fact one participant in an internet forum on karate called it a real "warrior's film", which I think is accurate.

Murray's character, a weatherman named Phil Conners, finds himself living the same day over and over again - Groundhog Day, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Once he figures out what's going on, he uses the situation to learn all about the town and its inhabitants, then uses his knowledge to amuse and please himself - seducing women, robbing an armored car and spending the money to buy a fancy car, going for joyrides - all without consequence, as he wakes up the "next" morning with everything reset to the way it was. And this is enough for a while.

Then he tries seducing his producer, Rita. (Here's the romantic element.) Over several "takes", he almost makes it, but not quite...and he starts to see how hollow, how empty, it all is.

He despairs. He tries killing himself - but wakes up again with everything reset. He tries again and again and again - later he remarks that he's died so many times, he doesn't exist anymore. This expression of anatman is maybe the most explicit spiritual reference in the film.

Giving up on both shallow pleasures and nihilism, Phil devotes himself to cultivation of excellence and to service to others. In keeping with the conventions of the romantic genre, it's love for Rita that provides the catalyst for the change.

He has all the time in the world, after all, to perfect his way. He studies poetry and music, learns to ice sculpt, cultivates arete, excellence. And he becomes a guardian to the people. When a boy falls from a tree, he knows this is about to happen and is there to catch him. A trio of elderly ladies gets a flat tire - he's right there to change it. A man chokes in a restaurant - he's there to give the Heimlich. But he also has to learn the inevitability of death, as in a very moving sequence he tries again and again but is unable to save an elderly homeless man.

That's what makes it a "warrior's movie", in my estimation - the cultivation of excellence, the compassionate desire to help others, and the acceptance of death. In some ways it reminds me of the classic Kurosawa film Ikiru, where an elderly bureaucrat learns that he has only a few months to live, triess to distract himself with worldly pleasures, but ultimately finds satisfaction in devoting his last days to the service of his community. Of course the hero of Ikiru has little time, where Groundhog Day's Phil Conners has all the time in the world; but they both learn the same lesson.

In the end, Phil makes the day perfect, learns what he needs to learn, wins Rita's love, the spell or whatever is broken, and presumably they live happily ever after - it is, in the end, a romantic comedy. But while Groundhog Day is ultimately sweet, it's no puff pastry; it will provide those who watch it deeply with something nutritious to chew on.

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