Harold Ramis died today at the age of 69. He was a talented actor, comedian, and writer but for me he will always be best remembered as a genius director. I could go on for pages and pages about his talent and ideas but instead I will limit myself to just a few words on what I believe is his masterpiece, the film Groundhog Day.
Everyone by now knows the plot of this great film. What people may not realize is how subtle and genius the philosophical issues underlining the plot are. It is essentially a story about a man living in a world he feels he cannot control. Phil (played by the grossly under-estimated and under-utilized Bill Murray) finds himself trapped in a time loop that causes him to repeat what may be the most banal day of his life. This film could have been nothing more than a comedy of errors that allowed Murray to run rampant through this little town using all the jokes and tropes in his bag of tricks but Ramis did not let the story go that route. Instead he gave Murray and the rest of the cast a task to explore what it means to be a human being confronted with the boring, bland and even oppressive monotony of the everyday. Ramis’ story is Nietzschean in its view of time and place, positing a eternal reoccurence of events and circumstance that starts out as comical and slowly moves on to the absurd, the tragic and then finally the transcendent.
This would not work the way it does if not for Ramis’ skill with framing scenes in such a way as to elicit a sort of cinematic/aesthetic deja vu. We do not see actors redoing scenes, we see them reliving them and in this it enhances Murray’s performance and allows him to interact with the characters in such a way as to bring out the desperation of a man who has realized that his life is a loop that is unable to be broken. We come to realize with Phil that the seemingly mystical redo of this day is not so mystical at all but just a more literal manifestation of the everyday. Nothing changes in the world, nothing except for how we react to it, the choices we make and the interactions we have with other people. For the first few days (or is it weeks, or years?) of Phil’s experience he continues to push himself to do the same thing over and over again, to try and recreate his experience from the perspective he brought to this town he did not want to visit to do a task he never wanted. But soon he realizes that he has a chance to not only change himself but to change the world around him. He learns to play the piano, he becomes an expert on the goings on of this town and its people, he makes friends, forms memories, and makes realizations about himself in relation to others. Nothing changes in the world around him but he changes, and through this he slowly begins to change the people and the world he interacts with. His interactions with his old high school chum, the insurance shill Ned, starts as a comedy of errors but Phil’s disdain for the man slowly becomes an affection that leads him to realize that in his own way Ned is trapped in his own loop. By interacting with him as a human being instead of just as an annoyance he is able to transcend the strangeness of their interactions and help release Ned from his nightmare, the everyday. This epiphany is repeated with other people, most notably his love interest played ably and believably by Andie McDowell, and most tragically with the homeless man who hides in plain sight on the margins of this little universe. He tries to help this man, to improve his life in some way, but continually runs into the true end of this endless loop: death. The man cannot be saved because this man has reached the end of his journey. Phil is thrown into a depression that is all the more profound because he once did not give a shit about anyone or anything. He tries to kill himself, countless times and in many creative and silly ways, but he cannot ever do the deed. Maybe this is because he is not ready to die? Maybe it is because he is not meant to? There is no answer to that question as there is no answer to the finality of death.
The the structure of the movie moves from cynicism to hilarity to farce to cynicism and eventually, inexorably to revelation. Not a religious experience, not some cheap throwaway message about eternal life or the inherent joy of existence. Instead change comes when Phil finally gives up trying to change the world and his circumstances and instead focuses on changing himself and being a good, compassionate friend to those around them. It does not matter in the end that they may not remember this or even reciprocate his generosity and friendship, what matters is the experience of the joy of the moment and the love of people and their flaws, stupidity, and imperfections. People are not meant to be perfected, they are meant to change. Change is not positive or negative but instead regenerative, a constant cycle of renewal and growth that, like the idea of natural selection in nature, moves the individual into greater harmony with and understanding of the world around them. The world itself, the whole, changes so slowly that it may as well be the same day over and over again. Phil embraces this and that is when he is freed from this perverse parody of the everyday.
It takes a real visionary to be able to take such a basic set of tools and turn them into something truly profound. Harold Ramis achieved that feat with Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day may be the most successful American comedy of the past 50 years in regards to its honesty, creativity, humor and craft. I try to watch the film at least once every year and I am continually inspired by Ramis’ ability to take what is essentially a ridiculous concept and turn it into a sort of transcendent examination of what it means to live day to day and how our own choices are the main way we escape the drudgery of life. It is a perfect existentialist examination of what it means to be a person living in a world that does not change save for the actions of each person.