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Phil falls into despair and depression; his life feels empty and meaningless to him with no hope for improvement, leading him to attempt suicide. He hates himself, hates his life and wants to end it.
Over and over he tries to annihilate himself, but each morning wakes to find that it’s still Groundhog Day.
Then one morning in the coffee shop, reading at the counter with classical piano in the background, he decides to start piano lessons. (Earlier in the movie, when Rita is describing her ideal man, one feature she lists is that he play a musical instrument.) As the movie continues, we see Phil attempting to make use of his time to become a better person: besides learning an instrument, he develops concern for other people and tries to help them: three elderly women with a flat tire, a boy falling from a tree, a man choking in a restaurant on whom he performs the Heimlich maneuver.
Most important is his relation to an old man who begs on a street corner. When Phil passes him earlier in the film, he walks by with callous disregard; now, when the old man appears to be dying, Phil tries again and again to save his life — with food at the diner, or CPR as the old man lies inert in an alley. When Phil takes the old man to the hospital, the nurse explains that he died because he was old, that it was his time.
At first Phil can’t accept this fact — he still wants to believe he can control what happens in life, as if he were a god; eventually he comes to accept that death lies at the end for all of us. Time is precious — best to make the most of our limited span on this earth.
In other scenes, Phil keeps his distance from Rita even when she expresses interest in spending time with him. He never touches or tries to manipulate her, even on the night of the groundhog party when she “wins” him in an auction. After the party, he carves her face from a block of ice; when he shows it to her, he expresses his sincere love for her without asking for anything back, without attempting to coerce her to his will.
He says that he feels completely happy and content with his life because he loves her, but he’s also happy because he likes himself now. When he wakes the following day, it’s no longer Groundhog Day and he has returned to real time, presumably because he learned the emotional lesson he needed to learn. The first thing he wants to know is what he can do for Rita today.
Through the helpless experience of love, Phil becomes a better person, transforming from a selfish, manipulative jerk mired in self-hatred into a self-respecting man with true concern for other people. Such is the transformative power of love … at least in movies. As much as I love books and films that demonstrate this theme, I’m still not sure it actually happens that way in real life.
Does love have the power to transform you into a better person and transcend your character? You tell me.
Photo by Augie Schwer, available under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial license.