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After local news meteorologist Phil Conners (Bill Murray) assures Pittsburgh residents that the big snow storm heading their way is going to bypass the city, he begrudgingly heads to nearby Punxsutawney with producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) to cover the yearly Groundhog Day festival. Once there though, that pesky storm has plans of its own and traps the trio in the tiny town, forcing Phil to take a room at a Bed & Breakfast while the others stay in a hotel.
When he wakes up the next morning though, wouldn’t you know it, it’s Groundhog Day again. Literally. And then again. And again. Phil seems caught in some terrible time loop and no matter what he does, there seems no escape. As he contends with life on repeat, he slowly bends from his cantankerous disposition, believing he can be a greater good to the community while also improving himself. Of course, that all starts with him desperately trying to bed the beautiful Rita, but hey. Whatever. Growth is growth.
THE OLD MAN: The film is careful not to explain what causes the loop, putting all its efforts into Phil and his development, and it’s the right choice. It’s a real testament to the film that we don’t ever care about how it’s happening, only why. And the why is good stuff, with some truly funny moments that provide Murray with a stage to give one of his greatest performances. Phil is a ridiculously unlikable guy and yet we can’t help but love him. As the story progresses, the once self-centered weatherman begins to emerge from his dark cocoon and reveal his more altruistic side. Nothing surprising here. Colorful characters and amusing situations are the name of the game. Then we meet an old man on the streets, homeless and begging for money. Huh? He seems inconsequential at first, and we feel a little uncomfortable ’cause certainly this part isn’t funny, right? In fact, it isn’t. And there is much to learned. Let’s talk about him.
First seen on a corner, panhandling just a moment before Phil has his daily run-ins with the wildly exuberant Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky), we see some evolution in Phil that begin to chip away at his cold exterior. Ignoring the old man at first, eventually, he begins to give him bits of money and then finally decides to make him a project. After many runs through the time loop, he soon finds the old man at the end of the day chilled and sickly in the dark. He takes him to the hospital where unfortunately, he passes away.
Troubled by his seeming inability to save him, Phil pushes further declaring that the man won’t die on this day. The next loop sees him taking the man to a diner to get soup and a meal, but it doesn’t work, the man dies in an alleyway, even after Conner uses CPR. It’s a hard moment that is anything but funny, and we feel it especially so. For Phil, accepting that sometimes, as the nurse first told him, people just die, is not so easy.
So why does this matter? The great thing about Groundhog Day is the balance it maintains with comedy and sincerity. Conners is a man who, by the nature of the plot, is designed to be repugnant before blossoming to become not just sympathetic but endearing. That’s shown throughout the film through bits of light comedy. However, with the old man (played by Les Podewell), the film tackles its only real moments of true drama–letting aside the sequence of suicide attempts of course, which has is own flavor of humor.
It might initially seem like an emotional manipulation but it’s actually anything but, with the sequence giving Conner the opportunity to express something more than the essential traits to which he will become a better man, though after typing that, I’m thinking that, no, in fact the old man is perhaps the most essential. While Rita rightfully remains the standard by which Conner is to be judged, his trail and error efforts to woo her slowly shaping the man he is meant to be, the uncontrollable death of the old man is the only element in Phil’s repeating days that remains unchanged no matter what he does. All the lessons he learns throughout the film provide him chances to have larger consequences on the townspeople as well as himself and Rita. He grows to have great impact on all the people he meets. Except the old man. And yet …
Perhaps he does. The man’s last day is one of compassion and dignity, his final hours spent with an earned friend, far removed from the start of this story. Phil learns that there is one considerable constant in the universe, even if time has doomed him to live it over and over again, that death is inescapable for those whose time has come. Life for those who embrace it is a cherished thing. It’s a lesson that Phil takes to heart, and could easily be understood as the one that truly shifts him onto the right path. It’s a beautiful moment and one that Murray handles with sublime authenticity, which helps make Groundhog Day a movie of extraordinary worth. The fate of the homeless man is an often forgotten moment in the movie, it’s briefness maybe lost in the larger comedy bits that make the film so memorable, and yet to understand what the man represents, is to learn the real arc that Phil eventually makes.