Elizabeth Wurtzel once wrote that the only real choice we have in life is whether to be bitter or gracious. Granted this may not be our only choice (there’s always room for contrariness on this blog), but it is the only choice Bill Murray is given in Groundhog Day – a movie that does for déjà vu what Au hasard Balthazar did for donkeys (i.e. bestows grace).
It might seem strange to mention a Robert Bresson movie when discussing a Harold Ramis flick, but I don’t it with a facetious intent. It’s true that Bresson is often regarded as the alpha and the omega of beatific cinema, but with so little of the true spirit of religion in movies, it can’t hurt to co-opt Hollywood now and then. Besides, Groundhog Day is a religious movie. It says what every good religion says, that self-worth comes from selflessness. Déjà vu isn’t a trick of the mind in this movie, it’s a reminder: what are you missing?
Groundhog Day begins with Bill Murray forecasting the weather. He is a TV weatherman for a no-mark TV station. Every year his station dispatches him to Puxatawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebrations (wherein said marmot predicts when winter will end). Murray hates Puxatawney and groundhogs with a passion, as he hates everything. He is a misanthrope. His plan is to get out of Puxatawney the very second his professional obligations have been fulfilled. But Groundhog Day, for Murray, never ends. Instead he finds himself caught in a loop, re-living Groundhog Day from 6am ’til he falls asleep each night, the only man aware that everyone else around him is stuck on repeat.
There are many ways this premise could be realized in movie-form – as thriller, as science-fiction, as horror, as all three. Think of what David Fincher might have done with the concept – casting Edward Norton or the like as a man trapped in perpetual torment, slowly (but stylishly) driven mad by the nightmare of always knowing what happens next. Comedy wouldn’t seem the obvious choice for how to handle temporal stasis – and to create comedy from repetition without losing audience interest is a challenge that has defeated even the best directors.
But Groundhog Day succeeds. It succeeds to such a degree that it even becomes a great movie. If it were merely good it might make you laugh, but, being great, it also tells you how to live.
Thank God Ramis picked Murray for the lead role. It is impossible the movie could convey its message without him. Not that his exclusion would have changed the message, but to hear it delivered by anyone who exhibited goodwill readily would have been an insufferably sugary affair. Bill Murray brings Bill Murray to the movie. Jim Carrey once defined the Bill Murray persona as invincible because “he doesn’t care”. This is true to a point, but for the remainder you need to read Julia Phillips on cynics (“Cynics are hopeless romantics, and they get more disappointed”). For me, Murray is always busy not caring in case anyone should call him a good man and thereby make his good deeds showy instead of selfless.
Murray is the right choice for Groundhog Day because (on-screen) he’d rather die than wear his heart on his sleeve. Reciprocally, Groundhog Day works for Murray because the movie literally kills him before it makes him love somebody. Selflessness isn’t squishy in Groundhog Day, it comes about via a process of attrition. Maybe it’s the amount of work involved in Murray’s salvation that made me think of Bresson. Bob’s vision of grace was always what came after hard knocks.