Yesterday I went to the Arsenal Mall Majestic Seven Cinema to see a special screening of Groundhog Day, a breakthrough film released thirty years ago directed by Harold Ramis. It stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. Groundhog Day is a huge favorite of mine. I saw it for the first time the year it was released at the North Park Mall Cinema in Dallas. I later bought the VHS tape and watched it all the time.
Groundhog Day is a rare movie that comes in like a comedy but goes deep. It is charming, disturbing, sometimes dark, meaningful, and funny. It tells a story about arrogance, hubris, and the ineluctable flow of time. There are true life lessons to learn from this film.
Throughout the movie, Phil Connors finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. Each time he experiences the day, he learns a little more about himself. At first, Phil tries to take advantage of the situation by living recklessly and indulging in every conceivable form of debauchery (it’s rated PG, so not to worry). But soon, the thrill of wanton excess leads him to deep darkness. He experiences his miserable life as torture, and as he explains to his producer, Rita Hanson (played by the fabulously openhearted Andie McDowell), he commits suicide several times – and yet awakens every morning back in his b&b in Punxsutawney, PA, at 6 am, with Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe.”
As he continues to relive each day, he goes through something of a Kubler-Ross journey. Eventually, he understands that life is more than just getting through each day. He realizes life is about the people we meet, the things we do, and the memories we create. The movie suggests that we should cherish every moment of our lives and make the most of our time on earth. Phil’s experience reminds us that life is short and that we must curate every scene.
Groundhog Day was written by two nice Jewish boys: Harold Ramis (may he rest in peace) and Danny Rubin. They do not claim that it is a Jewish movie. In fact, over the years, they received an enormous amount of fan mail from religious leaders from various faiths, all claiming that they see the film’s religious themes through the particular lens of their faith. Christians see Jesus and resurrection, Buddhists see karma and reincarnation. And Jews?
Well, this Jew finds Groundhog Day to contain profound Jewish teachings about appreciating life and taking up the responsibility to actively engage in the betterment of the world on the most intimate level. Phil knows that a man will choke on a piece of steak in the course of his day, so he learns the Heimlich maneuver to save him. Phil watches a kid fall from a tree and times his walk to catch him. When a carful of octogenarians gets a flat tire, he’s there with a new tire and a lift. None of these acts are Nobel Prize-worthy. And yet, these are the acts that matter. The little things don’t mean a lot; they mean everything.
This is a definitive example of our life’s task: to be a better human by extending ourselves to others. It doesn’t come naturally to Phil. He has to overcome his intrinsic narcissism. Who knows how many endless days it takes him to learn to, at last, break through? The movie points out that redemption can only be found in the relationships we form. And those relationships only truly matter when they are open and honest, which is why this film always resonates so profoundly for me as a Jewish movie. It’s all about being present for others. This is our holy mission as mandated by God.
My master teacher of essay writing and criticism, Roger Ebert (ז״ל), didn’t say Groundhog Day was a Jewish movie. But he knew how to caressingly describe its Jewish heart: “We see that life is like that. Tomorrow will come, and whether or not it is always Feb. 2, all we can do about it is be the best person we know how to be. The good news is that we can learn to be better people. There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, “When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.” The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.”