"It just doesn't matter!": The philosophy of Bill Murray
Some wisdom from the Groundhog Day star on Groundhog Day
They say all humor has a grain of truth to it (which means “they” have clearly never watched an episode of Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!). Our best comedians have always understood this, using comedy as a means for providing punchline after punchline to the longest running gag ever written: human existence. Of these thinking man’s wits, Bill Murray is one of the most dedicated: He’s done everything from dropping Dalai Lama riffs in the middle of Caddyshack to scaling a mountain to seek enlightenment in The Razor’s Edge, while even taking a few years off from acting to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. It’s no accident, then, that so many of his films—beneath Murray’s veneer of world-weariness and sarcastic asides—recall the same existential questions that have been posed by sages since the dawn of the word “why.” In honor of Groundhog Day (and Groundhog Day), here are some of Murray’s deepest thoughts, couched in some of his funniest movies.
The Buddhism of Groundhog Day
Though everyone from secular self-help therapists to Catholics have claimed it as their own, Groundhog Day is especially beloved by the Buddhists, who view it as an illustration of the notion of “samsara”—the endless cycle of birth and rebirth that can only be escaped when one achieves total enlightenment. In the film, Murray’s sarcastic, self-serving weatherman is forced to repeat a single day out of his life until he comes to terms with the Four Noble Truths: 1) Life is suffering (but that doesn’t mean you have to add to it by being a jerk). 2) The origin of suffering is attachment to desire (so don’t spend your days robbing banks, stuffing your face with danishes, and trying to bamboozle your way into Andie MacDowell’s pants). 3) There is a way out (by dedicating your time to bettering yourself), and 4) it involves following the “eightfold path,” which means revoking self-indulgence and becoming a “bodhisattva”—someone who acquires skills and uses them in the selfless service of others (like changing an old lady’s tire, saving kids who fall out of trees, and performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking victim). As a result of Murray’s generous acts, he receives the love of the whole town—a oneness with the universe—and is allowed to evolve past the cycle of samsara to nirvana. In this case, “nirvana” means renting a house in rural Pennsylvania and waking up next to Andie MacDowell every day, but hey, whatever makes him happy.
The “amor fati” of Ghostbusters
A favorite expression of Nietzsche, “amor fati” refers to an attitude of acceptance toward one’s fate—that even suffering and loss should be embraced, as they are all part of one’s destiny. In Ghostbusters, Murray’s Peter Venkman goes with the flow of fate like no other: Faced with the sudden closure of his paranormal research department, he revels in it as an opportunity, memorably saying, “Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma. I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that we were destined to get thrown out of this dump.” Venkman’s abiding faith in predestination allows him to confront even the ugliest of horrors—like the dead rising from their graves and smearing ectoplasm on everything in sight—with an unflappable cool that verges on stoicism, the most extreme version of amor fati. That’s why he can deal with everything from the constant threat of bankruptcy to rejection by Sigourney Weaver (and her later transformation into a demon dog) to an imminent apocalypse at the hands of a Sumerian god, armed with nothing beyond stoic self-confidence and a bottomless arsenal of sarcastic quips. (And okay, proton packs.)
The existential nihilism of Meatballs
The idea that life is meaningless—and that free will is thus an illusion, given the utter senselessness of making any choices at all—has plagued philosophers ever since man first set useless pen to pointless paper. In centuries past, some writers have taken this to the extreme, arguing for suicide as the only solution, but others take a more existentialist tack, arguing that embracing that fundamental meaninglessness is an act of liberation. Take Arthur Schopenhauer, who (despite the negative, dismissive connotations of his advocating “pessimism”) argued that looking at life optimistically required intellectual dishonesty, and coming to terms with meaninglessness was the first step toward pursuing the basic human compassion that is our only true purpose. Those ideas form the basis of one of Murray’s most stirring, endlessly-adaptable-to-our-times monologues, a postmodern philosophical treatise delivered to North Star campers fearing another Olympiad trouncing by the rich kids at the Mohawk.
The Socratic wisdom/embrace of ignorance of The Man Who Knew Too Little
A way of life espoused by sandal-wearing philosophy majors and monologuing stoners everywhere, the notion of “wisest is he who knows he does not know” from Plato’s Apology is perhaps best exemplified by Murray in the 1997 espionage spoof The Man Who Knew Too Little. Murray plays Wallace Ritchie, the personification of blissful ignorance. Ritchie decides to celebrate his birthday by flying all the way from Des Moines to surprise his brother James in London with a visit. James, on the verge of closing a big deal with some German businessmen, decides to get rid of his brother by sending him off to enjoy an evening of interactive experimental theater that takes place in the real world. Only, Ritchie never connects with the “The Theater Of Life,” and instead winds up receiving a call intended for a hit man that sends him down the path of unwittingly being the biggest enemy of conspirators seeking to bring about the second Cold War. Ritchie’s belief that everything he’s experiencing isn’t real grants him a kind of audacious invincibility—he’s able to bluff his way out of torture, not notice being shot at, and avoid getting arrested, all by virtue of believing everything that’s happening isn’t real.
The asceticism of Scrooged and Rushmore
As practiced by certain sects of Hinduism, Jainists, and even Christians who reject the ideas of “prosperity theology” (and actually, you know, listen to Jesus), asceticism involves a conscious abstaining from worldly pleasures in favor of focusing on one’s spiritual life. While he doesn’t end up wandering the desert in sackcloth eating only what may fall into his bowl, Murray does arrive at these basic tenets of asceticism in two of his most popular roles: In Scrooged, Murray’s Frank Cross is dedicated to success no matter the cost to his basic humanity, until a night of being tormented by spirits—who are really just manifestations of his own conscience—opens his eyes to the simpler joys of “putting a little love in your heart” and helping your fellow man. In Rushmore, Murray’s Herman Blume is a self-made tycoon with his own multimillion-dollar business and the lifestyle to match, yet he’s crippled by ennui, and despairing over the alienation he feels toward his family. Pursuit of a truer definition of love eventually tears his world apart—and wrecks him both financially and physically—but by movie’s end, Blume has undergone a total spiritual reawakening, and seems to have found happiness at last in his total unburdening.
The Pagliacci-ism of Quick Change
Crying-on-the-inside types have long related to Pagliacci, the classic opera first performed in 1892 about a lonely, jealous clown who murders his wife. Everyone from Smokey Robinson to Tony Soprano have name-checked the quintessential sad funnyman, but nobody embodies the archetype as perfectly and completely as Murray, who cast himself as an actual clown for his (so far) only directorial effort, 1990's Quick Change. Murray plays the appropriately named Grimm, a stone-faced goofball who masterminds a successful bank robbery in Manhattan only to foul up the protracted getaway. While Quick Change was co-directed by screenwriter Howard Franklin, the movie's painfully wry worldview is pure Murray: Failure is inevitable, and seeing the humor in this doesn't make it any less soul-crushing.