How the movie 'Groundhog Day' can help us move forward during COVID-19

Bethany Jean Clement
Seattle Times
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Groundhog Day is Tuesday. The prospect of the extension of this already endless winter — an unthinkable entire year into the global pandemic — is enough to make somebody load Punxsutawney Phil into a truck and drive him off a cliff. If the world's most famous forecaster sees his shadow, we're condemned to six more weeks of increasing stir-craziness, our shivering lives ever more circumscribed by this random, senseless thing as we fear the variants and wait seemingly forever for the vaccine, every day the same as the one before.

Sorry to sound so dire. But the helplessness, the inability to plan a future, to attain any sense of forward motion — the human psyche is not geared toward this. It may sound ludicrous in the context of our very real collective fear, but the 1993 comedy "Groundhog Day" is here to help.

Bill Murray in "Groundhog's Day."

"Groundhog Day" stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a smug, cynical, sexist, supremely solipsistic weatherman. He's the kind of guy who, utterly snide, says to a bartender, "Could I have one more of these with some booze in it, please?"

Dispatched unwillingly to cover the official Groundhogging, Phil gets stuck, for some unknown cosmic reason, living the same day in the same small Pennsylvania town, over and over. Luminous, kindhearted Rita — Andie MacDowell — acts as his producer and moral counterpoint. Chris Elliott functions fantastically as another kind of straight man, while Stephen Tobolowsky intermittently explodes the screen with an absurdly over-the-top turn as a random sidewalk encounter.

"Groundhog Day" is marvelously funny, in ways both subtle and broad (MacDowell and Elliott in the first category; Tobolowsky in the second; Murray in both, sometimes, somehow, at the same time). It stands up to repeated viewing (even a lot of repeated viewing in a short time, I can personally attest). And its comedically administered ontological outlook is piercingly apropos for these dark days before this spring's dawn (please, please, let spring come).

It's the scene in the diner, about half an hour in, that no one ever forgets. The shot opens with the frame filled with a table so laden that the sky-blue Formica is barely visible, the silvertone holder of paper napkins edged aside by lemon pie, a slice of cake, a pink milkshake, doughnuts, cookies, flapjacks, bacon, eggs, a sticky bun, even what looks like a bowl of canned fruit. Why wouldn't you order the entire menu when the world has no meaning? Who needs napkins? Pan out and up, to Murray as the trapped-in-time weatherman, plucking a bright red berry off an individual-sized shortcake. MacDowell's Rita rebukes him with gentle wit. "I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the winds," she deadpans. "It's inspiring in a way." On a previous visit — we return to the Tip Top Cafe, the hearth and heart of Punxsutawney, throughout the film — she's sweetly complimented the sticky buns as "heavenly," but her role here is down-to-earth, pointing out that actions generally have consequences.

"More coffee, hon?" the kindly waitress offers, stopping by. "Yeah, just keep it coming, please," Phil replies, reaching out to take the whole goldtone carafe and drinking straight from it. He lights a cigarette (this is the early '90s, when dining and smoking inside were allowed). Eventually, he crams an entire piece of angel food cake into his mouth.

"Groundhog Day" seems to posit this scene of abject gluttony as the gateway to a nihilism that becomes a hell of Phil's own making. Yet the excess here is also a celebration, an invitation: Who can watch without wanting to be there, drinking that milkshake and eating that cake? Later, we find Phil in the TV room of his bed-and-breakfast, surrounded by a group of older guests marveling at his ability to get every answer — meaning, of course, every question — right on "Jeopardy!." He's in his pajamas, he's eating a big bowl of golden popcorn, and he's drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. It's binge-watching times infinity. It's also very funny, with the very funniness suggesting that the road through monotony has these kind of understandable, forgivable byways.

Phil also kills himself a bunch — notably by having toast in the bathtub — which, warning, is played for sort of half-comedic effect. The movie's not real, but depression is. If you or someone you know needs help, the 24-Hour Crisis Line is there at 866-4CRISIS. Washington Listens is another resource to help people manage stress and anxiety they're experiencing because of COVID-19 — reach them at 833-681-0211.

Again, in context, it rings preposterous, but there's at least some small power to be found now in witnessing the possibility of progress through repetition. At first, Phil exploits his cyclical circumstance for evil, using Rita's favorite drink (sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist) and preference in ice cream (rocky road) to try to seduce her. He, the creepiest of creeps, earns every slap across the face she smartly administers to him (eight, by my count, each hopefully followed by a detailed report to HR). But something happens along the way. His horrifyingly selfish motive for learning more about her turns into a panoply of pandemic-style hobbies — learning languages, playing piano, artistic ice carving. Soon he's seated solo at the diner counter, surrounded by stacks of books, studying poetry. After real human curiosity is ignited in Phil's blighted being, then comes room for actual humanity as he brings a forgotten soul to the selfsame counter for one bowl, then another, of soup.

So much more happens in "Groundhog Day." It's all a reminder that even when our choices seem so reduced, we're still lucky to have so many to make — choices that can impact our world over and over, every day. And a reminder that it's possible, the powers that be willing, to emerge on the other side of this thing with an unfathomably deeper appreciation of everyone and everything around us. Director Harold Ramis — RIP — said that after the 1993 release of "Groundhog Day," people from many different walks of spiritual life got in touch to let him know how it reflected their ideas about finding selflessness through tribulation, goodness in difficulty, a path to enlightenment. In the years since, the film has been a subject of theological scholarship. In 2021, it's comic relief and a lot more.

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