So let’s retell, relive, the central plot device one more time. Weatherman Phil Connors, of Channel 9, Pittsburgh, is dispatched one freezing February to the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. His assignment: to cover the Groundhog Festival, a strange bit of real-life pagan whimsy involving a groundhog, its shadow, and the possibility of six more weeks of winter. Phil (Murray) is bored and hostile; he flirts spikily with his producer, Rita (MacDowell), and bullies his cameraman; he disdains the cheery locals and their festivities (“hicks … morons …”); he spurns a dozen occasions to chat/connect/relate; he can’t wait to wrap up this piddling gig and get back to Pittsburgh. But a huge snowstorm—which he had predicted, with meteorological hubris, would pass by harmlessly—blocks his way home. Trapped in Punxsutawney for the night, comprehensively disaffected, he signs off and crashes out. When he wakes up the next morning, it’s Groundhog Day. Again. Same conditions, same people, same ritual. So it goes the morning after, and the morning after that, and on and on ad (apparently) infinitum. Phil is in a loop, a temporal locked groove. He’s stuck.
That’s the premise. It’s high-concept, but then, so was Franz Kafka. At early meetings between Rubin and Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis (with whom he collaborated on the screenplay), the two discussed the possibility of an external cause for Phil’s predicament—a magical clockmaker, maybe, or a gypsy’s curse. In the end, however, they thought it best to leave the recurrence of Groundhog Day unexplained. This was a profound creative decision. As in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the rupture with normality—the hex, the divine accusation, the black joke—has the appearance of arbitrariness. Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to discover that he has turned into a giant insect; Phil Connors awakes one morning to discover that the world is repeating itself. The onset is sudden. No reason is given. And yet, the rupture is not quite arbitrary: just as Gregor’s new beetle-life seems to have something to do with his stifling domestic circumstances and his awful job, so Phil’s stopped clock is all about his Phil-ness, his unrecognized despair. Depression, by its very nature, feels like the crime and the punishment at the same time: your primary relation to life is distorted, you are a stranger to gratitude and fidelity, your spirit sickens, and somehow—and this is the real pisser—you know it’s your own fault. We accept Phil’s never-ending Groundhog Day as a sentence passed upon his character, the net result of his accumulated misbehaviors in Punxsutawney.
It’s time to talk about Bill Murray: the dimmer switch inside his face; the micro-delay in his reactions, like John Bonham dragging the beat; his genius for stillness and expressionlessness; his comic orbit, within which everything rotates at a pace of his choosing; his long loafer’s body, surprisingly strong in the calves and forearms—somewhere behind his navel is the hidden fulcrum of the universe. Which is why, you see, he had to play Phil Connors. Phil is egocentric. According to the goody-goody Rita, it is his “defining characteristic.” She quotes Sir Walter Scott at him, almost spitting the line: “The wretch, concentred all in self …” Egocentricity is bad: this is one of our modern sub-psychological pieties. It’s not nice to be OCD, it’s not nice to be passive-aggressive, and it’s not nice to be egocentric. But where exactly is the center to be, if not in the ego? Where, if not there, are we to be seated? Ego is the hub, the axis, and if you’re looking outside of it for some kind of numinous pivot point, well, now you’ve gone mad, or got religion. This is the philosophy of Phil Connors—and the philosophy of most of us, when you get right down to it. Deep inside his Groundhog Day, Phil knows everything, anticipates everything, every wrinkle and flicker on the face of Time. He sits on a wall, poised, almost meditative: “A gust of wind, a dog barks. Cue the truck.” The critic Tom Shone finds on Murray’s face “the unshockable expression of a man who knows exactly what everyone is about to say seconds before they say it. That's what deadpan is, essentially, a physiognomical register of omniscience.”