February 2, 2012

The Psychology of Groundhog Day:
What the film says about us and our existence

“Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's coooold out there today!”

Those are the words Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes to each and every morning over the course of the 1993 film Groundhog Day. It's easy to recall the movie's eponymous title, Murray's lovably narcissistic character, and all the “I Got You Babe”, radio smashing comedy. But the real reason Groundhog Day is so memorable is because it's so very genuine. As Phil realizes he's reliving the same day over and and over, he reacts just the way any of us would. Phil handles (and eventually extricates himself from) this inexplicable and unique circumstance by going through five distinct changes of attitude. Phil journeys through confusion, contempt, selfishness, and despair, before undergoing a final transformation into a kind and compassionate human being.

It's what most of us aspire to be someday, but like Phil, we get sidetracked. Life throws curve balls at us (albeit nowhere close to the surreal experience Phil endures) and we get confused. Like Phil, we don't understand what's happening to us; our destiny becomes uncertain, and just as Phil repeatedly asks strangers on the street “What day is this?”, we desperately seek answers.

The next part of the movie features Murray at his finest, as he contemptuously delivers an on location weather report and mocks the citizens of Punxsutawney for their quaint Groundhog's Day traditions. What Phil is really dealing with here though, is his own fear and anxiety. He's coming to the realization that he's going to be stuck reliving the same day (perhaps forever) so he's lashing out.

Many of us (particularly those of us in mid-life) go through the same thing and respond the same way, deriding our jobs, our bosses and co-workers, and taking our frustrations out on the ones closest to us, all because we're stuck in a career we didn't choose, likely for the rest of our working lives.

Phil's anger eventually subsides and he deviously begins to exploit his predicament to satisfy his own desires. Once again, Murray's comic genius is on full display as Phil starts small. Knowing how the day's events will unfold allows him to impress a group of senior citizens with the correct answer to all the questions on Jeopardy. He then stakes out and executes an armored car robbery, and gains personal information about a sexy diner patron so he can seduce her.

This is perhaps the most authentic sequence in the entire movie. Who hasn't fantasized about having the winning lottery numbers, knowledge of which sports teams would win, or other unknowable information, and then using it for personal gain? In this case, Phil's actions speak to human beings' egotism, avarice, and carnality.

The seduction tricks Phil uses on the girl from the diner fail to work on the woman he's really interested in, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and the ultra-hedonistic, no consequences lifestyle he sinks into leaves him unfulfilled.

This part of the film emphasizes what many people of means have come to learn – that money can't buy happiness and all the indulgences in the world mean nothing without someone you care about to share them with.

So Phil sinks into depression. There are comical suicide attempts, with a deadpanning Murray leaping off a building and then electrocuting himself in the bathtub, only to once again wake up at 6:00 AM the next morning to the sound of Sonny and Cher.

Sadly, it's a reflection of the lives many have resigned themselves to. Like Phil, many of us wake to sound of the radio alarm and the inanity of the same morning deejay. Then we futilely trudge through our day, mistakenly believing that nothing we do or try will ever change our situation.

Like Phil, we feel we're no longer alive on the inside – so why go on?

Then at last, in the film's third act, Phil finds redemption. He chooses to stop living for himself; he accepts his fate and begins to use it to better both himself and the lives of those around him. Thus Phil perfectly positions himself to catch a small boy falling from a tree; he nurses a dying homeless man back to health, learns to speak French, takes piano lessons, and embraces the community and the local residents he'll seemingly be stuck with forever.

But a funny thing happens during this transformation. Phil makes new friends, gains the respect of colleagues, and the affections of Rita. Because he's focusing on others, rather than on resenting, exploiting and lamenting his own condition, Phil evolves from a pompous condescending ass into a benevolent, more complete and yes, happier person.

It's a good lesson for all of us. After 19 years, Groundhog Day and the psychological journey Bill Murray's character takes us on still speak to us. And it's the reason the movie is still so beloved and popular nearly two decades after its release.

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