Blogger's Note: My Second Third post for this week is delayed tonight in favor of a movie post that is long overdue. WARNING: This could be chock full of spoilers!
In February 1993, when the movie Groundhog Day was released, February 2 was an obscure observance, and Punxsutawney Phil was an obscure rodent attraction of which I, myself, had never heard. At that time Roger Ebert gave the film credit as a somewhat thoughtful comedy, and gave it a fairly favorable rating (3 out of 4 stars on his current web site). Twelve years later, Ebert wrote a new review of the film, adding it to his growing list of Great Movies. In the 2005 review, he says, "Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation. But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like "Groundhog Day" to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something."
My own experience with the film was similar. The first time I saw it, I liked it well enough: I laughed throughout and remembered the premise and specific scenes particularly well. Now, for me, there aren't a lot of comedies I'll go back to watch again and again (unless I'm channel-surfing and happen to catch one)...but for whatever reason, Groundhog Day struck me as worth a repeat viewing. In the years since, I've seen it multiple times and have grown to love the movie. For a long time, I couldn't figure out why.
Ebert's second review catches a glimpse of the movie's greatness. He cites an article in a British newspaper claiming that Groundhog Day is one of the most spiritual movies of all time.
A bit much? Think about it: We have a man in Bill Murray who is completely self-absorbed and cares about no one except insofar as they serve his interests. One morning he wakes up to find himself stuck: same alarm, same room, same routine, same job. One day, same as the next.
The premise is that he is literally stuck in time and space: He wakes up in the same place on same minute of the same day of the same month of the same year. But re-read the previous paragraph. Who hasn't gone through a similar stretch in life?
He goes through stages: shock, anger, denial. Then he comes to the conclusion that he might as well make the most of it. He eats what he wants, acts how he wants, behaves outrageously. He gathers information "one day" and uses it the "next," to seduce an attractive women, to rob an armored car. The rules don't apply to him. He sees himself as godlike, free to do whatever he wants.
I've heard multiple priests and theology buffs insist that true freedom isn't doing whatever you want. True freedom has at least some boundaries, which protect us and enable us be secure in ourselves and so to act for the good of others. True freedom is the ability to choose to do right, as best we can.
Groundhog Day hits this nail on the head. Murray's character is not made happy by his power, his gluttony and greed, or his conquests. He is lonely, bitter, unloved, still stuck in the same rut, and increasingly desperate. Finally he tries to kill himself...only to find himself waking up in the same spot again and again. Suicide is, literally, not the answer. He slowly discovers he wants to be loved.
The movie could have wrapped itself up with a nice moralizing bow right there, but it doesn't. He begins to try to live each "new" day rightly. He fails, and tries again. He uses what he learns about the people he encounters to help them instead of use them. At one point, he even seems to have set the bar too high, trying to live the perfect day, to do everything right, to help everyone and eliminate any trace of suffering in the little town. In this case he fails simply because that's not how the world works. Even when he's doing Good Work, he's still not God.
He gets closer and closer to love, messes up, loses it, and gets up in the morning to make another run. He tries to make each tomorrow a little better than today.
Re-read the previous paragraph. Don't know about you, but that sounds familiar to me, too.