The American Seeker - The Redemption of Phil Connors in "Groundhog Day"
Phil Connors is not a nice man. At the start of "Groundhog Day", Connors (played by Bill Murray), a minor celebrity weatherman for Pittsburgh's Channel 9 News, is a self-centered, arrogant jerk that looks down on his fans, his colleagues, and the world in general. His general disdain for everyone seems to be a signature feature of his personality, one that is entirely baked into his manner of speaking, the way he delivers the weather, and how he walks down the street. And, he seems entirely unconcerned that he is largely loathed by those around him.
And then it starts. After being tormented by having to cover the Groundhog Day Festival in Punxsutawney, PA, a blizzard blocks the road back to Pittsburgh and Phil is forced to return to the village and spend another night. But, the next morning, he awakes to Groundhog Day again, then again, and again. A countless number of days fly by as Phil finds himself in a strange purgatory, always in Punxtsutawney, always on February 2nd, always reliving the same events, never sure how or why he is there. And that is when the fun happens.
I love this movie so much, mostly because it never overplays the redemption angle. The story is never maudlin nor veers too deeply into schmaltz. Bill Murray is perfect as the guy that even as he's becoming the better version of himself, is never without a bit of an edge. You laugh when he's a jerk and you still laugh when he's the nice guy with the clever comment.
Phil Conners is striking in that his story is so American, both in his character traits and the way the narrative plays out. It is implied that Phil is somewhat famous and rich, which he takes as being valuable, but sorely lacking in community or strong social connections. Phil’s sense of self-importance is usually at the expense of someone else’s well-being. However, where an evil man being trapped forever in the same day may seem like a fitting punishment, it doesn’t make for a very interesting story, and definitely not an American one. Phil’s journey is a redemptive one in which with enough time he is able to eventually change. Europeans often complain that Americans are obsessed with happy endings, and rightfully so. But in the best American films, an ending must be earned by those who have worked to improve themselves. Phil Connors is an arrogant, fame-obsessed American but grudgingly, and over the countless iterations of February 2nd, begins to work to change his ways.
What makes Groundhog Day so interesting is that the lesson is always implied and never obviously stated. There is never a moment when some Higher Power reveals themselves to either cast Phil into his endless narrative nor to free him of it. Phil, and the audience, never know why it is happening. Is it karmic justice, a science experiment gone bad, a magical curse from the powerful Groundhog Spirit of Punxtsutawney.
What the director and editor luckily perceived is that it doesn’t really matter. Actions speak louder than motivations and the cosmic action of a time loop is far more interesting than any expected purpose that was supposed to fuel it. Phil Connors is that quintessential American hero: a bit stupid, more than little arrogant, but after enough mistakes will eventually figure out how to surprise everyone, most decidedly himself.