Bill Murray gives one of the best comedic performances in Groundhog Day, hands down, bar none, case closed, court dismissed, Hail Mary to the endzone, no argument, slam dunking a grand slam good. Well, maybe not that tremendous, but it’s a great performance that shows off Murray’s talent for creating highly unlikable and creepy characters that transform into someone truly good.
When we first meet Phil Connors (Bill Murray), he proves to be good at his job, but he is arrogant, narcissistic, rude, and boorish. As Larry (Chris Elliot), the cameraman so elegantly put it, Phil’s a “Prima Donna”. Phil is truly unlikeable. He’s skevy and creepy around the women he “whoos” during his time loop, he puts other peoples’ lives in danger in his “can do whatever” attitude, he only cares about himself and not his job or how his on screen performance affects his coworkers, and he’s a pig. Phil is not a good person at the beginning of the film, and he deserves the curse (or whatever it is that causes his time loop).
During the first half of the film, Murray relishes every word that comes out of “bad Phil’s” mouth. His line readings can be both droll and sinister. He really brings out the rudeness of the character without ever making Phil a caricature of bad behavior. Phil always feels like a real person, like one of those douchey men who are full of themselves even though they really aren’t that special. Murray grounds his character in reality, as he reacts as anyone would to this frightening and mysterious time loop. Anyone would be confused, angry, scared, or in denial of this curse, including Phil. Murray plays each of these emotions with subtlety, never letting Phil go fully bonkers, even when the film temporarily becomes a black comedy in the montage of death.
Right when Phil is at his lowest, given up on life altogether, we (the audience) start to empathize this man and his plight. We see the fear and sadness in Murray’s eyes, and understand why Phil would steal the groundhog and drive off a quarry cliff. Or electrocute himself, get hit by a bus, or jump from a tower. He is on his last will and can’t stand this tormented life. And then Murray starts to bring back that spark in Phil’s eyes. Whether it’s Phil trying to seduce Rita (Andie MacDowell) or save people’s lives, Murray shows the as Phil becomes an every day hero, it’s still the same Phil at the beginning of the film, only one who has learned and grown.
Murray is great, and famous for playing skevy characters. Just rewatch Ghostbusters and tell me his character, Dr. Peter Venkman, isn’t a dick. Because he is. Phil begins this film as a complete dick, but we still learn to love him through his transformation, thanks to Murray’s performance. Murray, as good as he is at playing funny and rude characters, he’s equally gifted at showing the good in oneself. With each act of heroism, Murray displays the cockiness of Phil, which will forever remain, but with more heart and charm. No longer is Phil’s arrogance a truth, but a way to be self-deprecating.
Phil takes each compliment he receives and is gracious, and he remains humble, casually becoming part of the community he saves. When the older women thank Murray for being that young man from the motor club, Murray is thankful and immediately follows it up with a joke about how these old women keep hitting on him to Rita. At the beginning of the film, this joke would be funny, but would also might have been annoying to Rita, one who can see through bullshit. But Murray shows that a joke can play both ways, that a joke can show layers of a character. Murray remains hysterical throughout shift in character motivation, while forming a realistic and relatable character.
As much as I watched Groundhog Day as a child and as much as I loved it, I never really appreciated how good Murray is in the role of Phil Connors. I watched it tonight and I noticed how Phil, who becomes a completely different person by the end of the film in terms of motivation, selflessness, and endearment, but is still recognizably Phil. He is still funny, still outgoing, still chatty. He no longer does things to impress, but because they are the right thing to do. Murray shows that dichotomy between good and bad Phil, and keeps the character recognizable through his transformation.
Groundhog Day is a comedy classic, one that should be watched for entertainment (because I will always laugh at Ned), but is also one that should be watched to appreciate and enjoy Murray’s talent. This is one film I’d be happy to be stuck in a time loop with.