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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

February 2, 2022: Bill MurrayStudying: Groundhog Day

[To celebrate one of our strangest holidays, Groundhog Day, I’ll be AmericanStudying that film as well as four others in the long and unique career of Bill Murray. Leading up to a crowd-sourced post featuring your takes on these and other Murray classics!]

On two layers to the crucial lesson at the heart of a unique cinematic comedy.

One of the more divisive films in Bill Murray’s long and multi-stage career has to be 1988’s Scrooged, a darkly comic modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I tend to agree with Roger Ebert’s highly critical review, where he called the film “one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time”; like Ebert I find that the film’s comedy is rooted in a consistently aggressive and angry tone (Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present abuses Murray’s Frank Cross relentlessly, for example), and don’t find the saccharine ending sufficient to counter that feel. But over the years Scrooged has become not just a cult holiday classic (which it definitely is), but also a critically praised one, with Empire magazine calling it the 7th-best Christmas film and Time Out listing it as the 13th-best, among other such accolades.

I’m dedicating a paragraph in this post to Scrooged for a very particular reason: whatever you think of that film, it’s at least ironic that another and far more universally acclaimed and beloved Murray movie, 1993’s Groundhog Day, presents a very similar central lesson to A Christmas Carol in all its many iterations and adaptations over the centuries: that a successful and happy life is defined first and foremost by doing good for others. Moreover, Groundhog Day’s initially and profoundly self-centered protagonist Phil Connors (he’s not as overtly greedy nor as mean-spirited as Scrooge, but they share a fundamental selfishness at the outset of their stories to be sure) learns that lesson through a supernatural conceit that is at least as unique and compelling as Dickens’ three Spirits—and perhaps even more so, since Groundhog Day makes it impossible for Phil to escape his endlessly repeating day, to move on with his life, until he truly learns and exemplifies that lesson. As that clip illustrates, the Phil at the end of the film is one of the most genuinely selfless and civic-minded characters in any cultural work (much less any comedy), one for whose happiness we are truly able to root.

Thinking through that lesson for this post has also helped me finally come to an interpretation of what has always been for me the film’s most ambiguous and confusing section: the sequence around the midpoint where Phil repeatedly tries (and fails) to save the life of a dying homeless man. Phil calls the man “father” multiple times, so my general take has been that it’s about making some sort of peace with his parents and past (about which we hear nothing otherwise). But seen through the lens of the film’s overarching lesson, this complex sequence can be read as offering two interconnected epiphanies: that even when we selflessly do for others, we can’t always save them from the worst of the world (I’m glad Tiny Tim lives at the end of Christmas Carol, but Scrooge’s change of heart would never be enough to guarantee that outcome); but also and even more importantly that, even or perhaps especially in those moments, the doing itself comprises a powerful and vital act. Indeed, I can think of few more powerful embodiments of hope and optimism than taking actions toward a more ideal future even when there’s no reason to think that they’ll succeed.

Next MurrayStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Takes on other Murray films? 

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