Film reviewed by Bernard Weiner, Ph.D.
San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal
Vol. 12, No. 1, 1993
On its most superficial level, “Groundhog Day” is a pleasant little Hollywood film about a stuck-up TV weatherman, Phil Connors, and how he becomes “unstuck-up” when he becomes stuck in the same day and can’t escape.
Phil is doomed to live in the world of perpetual, alienating todays, with the hope of tomorrow only a longed-for fantasy. Eventually, he learns that by opening himself to the wonders of today, he can break through to tomorrow (which, of course, is really a today but, importantly, a different one). Very Zen.
But on another level, “Groundhog Day” is almost a primer for depth analysis, dealing as it does with the pains and glories of the individuation journey.
Phil, it happens, is also the name of the famous groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pa., who each year on February 2 emerges from his burrow to predict whether America will see an early Spring. If Phil sees his shadow, we’re in for six more weeks of cold, gray winter.
In Danny Rubin’s clever, multi-layered story, Phil (played wonderfully by Bill Murray) is sent to Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day Festival. There, in effect, Phil-the-weatherman sees his “shadow,” those aspects of himself that have been locked away and that are preventing his life from a full ripening. He’s in for a long, dark winter: each day he wakes up is February 2. He nearly goes bananas.
This rude man’s self-absorbed ball of ego is going to have to come to grips with his shadow aspects before any kind of inner growth possibly can take place. Saying it this way may imply that the script is heavy on shadow matter, but the allusive “Groundhog Day” doesn’t delve that explicitly into “psychology.” (Curiously, the one short scene involving a therapist pokes not-so-gentle fun at the profession.) The enjoyment comes in watching how Rubin, and director Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the screenplay, weave the Buddhist/individuation strands into a tapestry of a mass-appeal Hollywood movie.
Significantly, the story itself begins with a metaphorical description of Phil’s world of self-absorbed isolation: the weatherman is pointing to various climate patterns on the U.S. map behind him, but it’s all an illusion: the map-screen is totally blank. The weatherman gets his information about the world second-hand, by glancing at a monitor offstage, which tells him where he should be moving his hands.
Although he makes a lot of money and is a local “celebrity,” Phil’s success is an illusion. He has very little independent life, and certainly nobody loves this nasty, off-putting “star”; as we’re later informed, he has no “life insurance,” no payoff for his dead or atrophied soul. Because Phil is so wrapped-up in himself, he finds it difficult to relate to his world, his environment, his colleagues. He is isolated and alienated, using an arrogant wit as his defense mechanism. But, trapped in today, an everlastingly-present mode, he eventually realizes that he’s been given the opportunity to get his life in order.
But his journey is not easy. He has to go through various phases before he finally figures out what’s going on and “gets it right”: utter confusion (at first, he is totally disoriented by his deja-vu experiences), disgusting hedonism (he realizes that he can eat, and do, anything, with no next-day consequences, or guilt), delusions of grandeur (he wonders if maybe he’s a god, since he is, in a sense, immortal), and crass manipulation of events for his own benefit — all these characterize the stages of his deepening awareness of the power of his shadow.
A large part of Phil’s problem is that in addition to his heavy ego-anchor, he carries a lot of baggage. For example, Phil’s attitude toward women: he simply wants to manipulate them into the sack. Being trapped in today gives him an advantage in this regard — he can keep refining his come-on lines to women until he gets the desired result — and when he realizes this he grows positively giddy with horny delight.
Enter the Anima figure, here called Rita. She’s the pretty, young producer sent to shepherd Phil through his Punxsutawney assignment. Phil’s first hint that he needs, wants, Rita occurs while he’s in bed with another woman he’s picked up for easy sex.
Phil decides he’s got to land Rita (the enchanting Andie MacDowell). But Rita, who possesses an air of innocence and mystery, is unobtainable. Even when he uses his refining-his-line trick, Phil can’t break through her defenses. She keeps slapping him in the face, as if to say it’s wake-up time, Phil. Rita is described as an “angel in the snow”; Phil’s first view of Rita, early in the film, is that of her standing in front of his empty weather map where a blizzard was projected a few moments before. He finally realizes that the only way to get to her is to be Phil: to tell her the truth about the weird situation he’s in, to jettison his macho come-on line, to simply be himself and open himself to her and what she has to bring to his life.
Significantly, even though he’s still partially in the Phil-as-manipulator mode, the weatherman starts to reach Rita (both as Anima and real love-object) when he begins to reconnect with his childhood, in a scene where he makes a snowman and engages in a fun-loving snowball fight with some young boys. As they dance together in the snow, we hear Ray Charles singing “You Don’t Know Me.”
Being receptive to Rita opens Phil to his creative, sensitive side: not only does he pay attention to what’s around him, but he begins to read poetry, study piano, sculpt. His face even begins to lose its tension, his eyes sparkle with delight, he looks younger. Rita obviously is good for his soul. (As the opening song, Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe,” says — which song Phil, and we, hear over and over again as he wakes up endlessly to a new/old day: “Put your hand in mine/There is no mountain we can’t climb.”)
The world becomes more than two-dimensional as Phil starts paying attention to it. When he first entered Punxsutawney, Phil put it down as a two-bit hick town, not worthy of a second glance. He just wanted to do the monotonous annual Phil-the-Groundhog story and get out of there. But as he hangs around (same) day after (same) day and begins to contact his inner Self, he comes to appreciate the beauties of the place and the delights of the small-town characters with whom he comes into contact: a cafe waitress, the insurance salesman, the bed-and-breakfast lady, etc. He even starts to enjoy doing the groundhog story, taking it to new reportorial heights. By connecting with himself, he can connect with others. The film parodies “It’s a Wonderful Life” around this point, showing us, and Phil, what would happen if he weren’t around. (This send-up of another perennial American classical holiday film is pretentious but yields some decent comic lines.)
In the final scene of the film, Phil finds the signpost for the road leading to the “Keystone” state. He feels so grounded in his individuation that he tells Rita maybe they should settle down in this small town. They may, they may not; the film simply suggests that wherever they go, they will be securely themselves and fully in love — with themselves, each other, and the world.#
Bernard Weiner was the San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic for two decades, and has reviewed movies for Film Quarterly, Sight & Sound (England), Take One, Jump Cut (Canada), and Overseas Weekly. He has taught at San Francisco State University, San Diego State University, Western Washington University and University of California Extension.