Bill Murray lives life on repeat in Groundhog Day

Bill Murray lives life on repeat in Groundhog Day

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of pegging our picks to a new release, we’re running through the best movies of 1993.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Despite a couple earlier flirtations with drama, Bill Murray’s career as a “serious actor” didn’t really begin until 1998, when Wes Anderson brought out a uniquely weary quality in the SNL alum. But Rushmore, for all the doors it opened, wasn’t the first sign that Murray had more to offer than deadpan one-liners: Five years earlier, he proved his real worth in Harold Ramis’ cyclical comedy of comeuppance, Groundhog Day. In fact, while much of Murray’s latter day work—including his Oscar-nominated appearance in Lost In Translation—has relied on a sustained note of melancholy, his turn in this 1993 masterwork demonstrates the actor’s complete range. It’s not just his funniest, but also his fullest performance.

The movie itself is a work of casual profundity, imparting what is essentially a moral message through the least preachy manner imaginable. (If, as many have claimed, it is one of the great spiritual films, then it also proves that God’s sense of irony is equal to his compassion.) Murray plays Phil, a weatherman caught in a cosmic loop: Every day, at 6 a.m. sharp, he wakes up to discover that it’s still February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, just as it was the day before and the day before that and so forth. Groundhog Day takes the audience through each step of Phil’s existential crisis: He panics, he seethes, he celebrates, he mourns, he curses God, he comes to think he is God, he grapples with the big questions, he kills himself a few times, he falls in love, and—this being a Murray character—he drops a few deadpan one-liners. Most significantly, Phil grows, using the endless downtime to educate himself, to make himself into a better man. (With no changes in his life to process, he can finally see who he really is.) There’s something very charitable about the film’s upshot: Given the tools and the time—in this case, maybe as long as 33 years—even the most insufferable prick can become a decent human being.

Two decades on, Groundhog Day feels timeless, partially because its sole backdrop, Punxsutawney, is a town largely untouched by pop-culture trends. But for all the universal points the film has to make about people’s capacity for change, it also works marvelously as a rebuke to the prevailing sarcasm of its era. To that end, who better than Murray, one of the most sardonic voices in comedy, to go through a metaphysical attitude adjustment? The actor slowly peels away Phil’s defense mechanisms, until the ironic distance he puts between himself and the world has shrank away into nothingness. No wonder Murray turned to drama and seriocomic indies a few years later. As a comedian, where could he go from a movie that trotted out all of his best tricks and then denounced them in the name of enlightenment? Like Phil, Murray had to move forward after Groundhog Day.

Availability: Groundhog Day is available on Blu-ray and DVD, the latter of which can be obtained through Netflix, and for rental or purchase through the major digital services.