Everyone likes Groundhog Day. But have we really understood this movie for what it is? As a child, I thought I was watching a story about a man who is given an opportunity to fix everything that is wrong with his life. But when I watched this movie again as I an adult I realized that this perennial family favorite was about something entirely different: the total destruction of an individual identity by an unrelenting and insipid petty bourgeois culture.
From the outset the film leads us to believe there is something wrong with the protagonist Phil Conners. He certainly has several characteristics that set him apart from the other characters, but none of them are necessarily bad. He has an acerbic, penetrating sense of humor. He lacks enthusiasm for the things that make other people happy such as a Groundhog Day celebration. But Phil’s most salient and (to some) most egregious characteristic is that the way he treats people corresponds to the way he feels about them. This is an unforgivable sin in middle class American life. For instance, he finds Larry, his driver, to be unintelligent and contemptible, but rather than pretend that he cares for Larry Phil treats him in such a way that reveals his true feeling. There is nothing wrong with this. One could say this violates the maxim to be “nice to everyone.” But hiding our true feelings toward other people is far more cruel than letting them know where they stand. The knowledge of other people’s feelings towards us at least gives us the opportunity to befriend them anew or not to befriend them at all.
Phil’s way of life is may be unusual in some places but it is a legitimate and even laudable way to live. Nevertheless, Groundhog Day shows us an environment that is utterly hostile to it. Nothing describes this environment as well as Rita’s description of her “perfect man.”
“First of all, he’s too humble to know he’s perfect. He’s intelligent, supportive, funny. He’s romantic and courageous. He’s got a good body, but doesn’t look in the mirror every two minutes. He’s kind, sensitive and gentle. He’s not afraid to cry in front of me. He likes animals and children, and he’ll change poopy diapers. And he plays an instrument, and he loves his mother.”
Every meaningful cultural and technological advance our civilization has enjoyed has come from people who do not meet this description. What she describes here is a lobotomized zombie creature who prowls the earth smiling at the sight of baby shit. Surely we can aspire to more.
But Phil maintains his way life in spite of this hellish environment. For this, he is our hero; he maintains his identity in the midst of the meretricious world around him. Nevertheless, our hero is eventually confronted by a challenge that is beyond his capabilities: a malevolent force makes him live through the same insipid day over and over again. At first, our hero is brave and mocks the malevolent force by taking advantage of this world. He steals money and spends his time trying to sleep with every woman that he can. But through the course of the movie we watch the hero begin to falter. Indeed, he is beaten, one slap at a time, into total submission to the perky middle class culture around him.
Under normal circumstances, the outsider or the misanthrope has some ultimate solace. He or she can move to a different place or avoid others or, if everything else fails, commit suicide. But the brilliant and malicious idea behind Groundhog Day is “what if we take everything from the outsider – even the possibility of a final reprieve?” There are few ideas as sadistic in film history. In the course the story we see a hero reduced to nothing, and at the end of the film we watch, with a heavy feeling in our chest, the final and ultimate capitulation of a heroic man.
Phil Conner’s transition to lobotomized happiness bears a strong resemblance to Randle McMurphy’s plight in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest. There too McMurphy’s unforgivable personality traits (among other things, a sense of humor, treating the other patients as equals), was found to be unacceptable by the authorities in charge and was stamped over the course of the film. There too the protagonist’s way of life was overcome through violence. But we recognize the tragedy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest but not in Groundhog Day. Why is this?
Despite their differences, we should look at these films in the same way. While the outcome of Cuckoo’s Nest is harsher, the coercive methods by which the films arrive at their endings is the same.
In the Gay Science, Nietzsche wrote we shouldn’t always view displeasure as a negative aspect of life:
If you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor…the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins.
It is the people who don’t seek comfort and who rise to the occasion of pain who “contribute immensely to the preservation and enhancement of the species, even if it were only by opposing comfortableness and by not concealing how this sort of happiness nauseates them.”
But the citizens of Punxsutawney are not interested in those things which preserve or benefit the species or themselves, even though they have greatly benefited from them. They have no interest in advancement or in creation. Theirs is a simple and unalterable world view – the religion of comfortableness which commands “perk up and engage in small talk, or else you will suffer until you submit.”