Written By: Daniel Kinsley
“Somebody asked me today, “Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you like to be?” And I said to him, “Prob’ly right here – Elko, Nevada, our nation’s high at 79 today.” Out in California, they’re gonna have some warm weather tomorrow, gang wars, and some very overpriced real estate. Up in the Pacific Northwest, as you can see, they’re gonna have some very, very tall trees.”
There are not many “perfect” films, but for this writer’s money, Groundhog Day (1993) fits the bill. * A moderate success upon initial release, it has since become recognized as a comedic masterpiece, and a cultural touchstone at that. ** The phrase “This is just like Groundhog Day!” has become culturally synonymous with repetition, and is bound to garner nods of empathy or at least, recognition. Co-written by director Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, the film tells the story of a man who finds himself living the same day over…and over, and over, and over. It is so simple a concept that it is a wonder it took so long for someone to capitalize on it. *** Its genius, though, is in the simplicity of the approach. You can engage with the film in any number of ways to determine what it all means, or you can simply enjoy its many surface-level joys.
Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a misanthropic weatherman on a local Pittsburgh news station. He is the kind of man who refers to himself as “the talent” and undoubtedly sees himself as bound for bigger, better things. Until then, though, he must suffer indignities like his annual trip to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the festivities of Groundhog Day. Traveling with Phil are his new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) whom Phil regards with equal parts contempt and egotism. Every February 2nd, the eponymous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil rises from his hibernation. If he sees his shadow then, it is said, we will have six more weeks of winter. On the titular day, Phil is woken at 6 a.m. by an alarm clock playing “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. On his way into town, he runs into former classmate, Ned Ryerson (played to irritating perfection by Stephen Toblowsky), steps into a frozen puddle, and spends what little time he is on camera condescending to both his co-workers and his audience for believing the groundhog to be news.
The only thing Phil seems to look forward to is leaving town. An incoming blizzard shuts down the roads, however, stranding the three of them in Punxsutawney. Phil turns away from his co-workers, who are determined to make the best of it, and goes to bed early. At 6 a.m. the next day, Phil is woken by an alarm clock playing “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. To his confusion and horror, he soon finds the previous day’s events playing out exactly the same way. When he goes to bed that night, he is woken the following day by an alarm clock playing–well, you get it. Gradually, it becomes apparent that he is reliving the same day. Over and over. After several days, the enormity of what is happening begins to dawn on him. At a bar one night, he asks a local, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
Phil soon begins to use his loop as an excuse to indulge in hedonism, but even his indulgences soon grow tiring, and give way to a deep melancholy. He attempts several different methods of suicide, all of which are unsuccessful in breaking him out of the loop. He learns how to play the piano, to sculpt ice, and speak French. Eventually he confides in Rita, which slowly leads him toward trying to become a better man. While the script is a brilliant piece of writing in its own right, it would not work as well as it does without the talent of someone as singular as Murray. It is a great credit to him that he is able to portray Phil as such an insufferable prick without losing the audience, before unearthing the tremendous depth and warmth beneath. By this time, the Murray persona is familiar to anyone who has seen enough of his work, but his old friend Harold Ramis knew how to utilize those traits to maximum effect. This despite the fact that the production was notoriously troubled, as Ramis wanted to make a straight-forward comedy, while Murray wanted to lean more into the existential aspects. Ironically, it is the push-pull between those two ideas that really combine to make the film work so perfectly. ****
In an early draft of the script, Phil stays trapped in the loop for 10,000 years. Co-writer Danny Rubin has mostly stayed mum on the exact number, while Ramis once estimated ten years, before later contradicting his own statement and amending it to around 30-40 years. ***** Two decades later, it remains an elastic point of discussion among cinephiles and spiritual types alike. There are dozens of interpretations ranging from Buddhism to Stephen King philosophy (Ka, after all, is a wheel). For what it is worth, the film seems to be certain of a few things; the importance of kindness and altruism, and love. The film itself makes no concrete declarations about why the loop begins, or how Phil escapes. It is worth noting, though, that after he begins to use his knowledge of the day to help people, it begins to change him. Rita, too, changes him. During one loop, he confesses to a sleeping Rita:
“I think you’re the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never seen anyone that’s nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you… something happened to me. I never told you but… I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.”
In the end, the film may amount to no more than a glimpse at the cycle of a life; there is plenty of joy and suffering alike, and Phil does not become a radically different man by the end of the film, just a better version of himself. Whatever it might mean to you, the beauty of it is that there is room for it to be so many different things all at once. It is so effortless that it is easy not to notice just how good it is. Every February 2nd, this writer makes time for Groundhog Day. Somehow, after all these years (and the irony of so many repeat viewings) it still feels just as vital as the first time.
* Other contenders include Die Hard (1988) and The Princess Bride (1987).
*** A notable exception being the original run of The Twilight Zone.
** In 2006, it was added to the United States National Film Registry (films selected are deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Suck it, Desson Howe!
**** While the movie turned out to be arguably the pair’s masterwork, it destroyed their personal relationship for over 20 years. Several possible reasons for this are thrown around, including Murray’s erratic behavior due to the dissolution of his marriage during filming. The pair would later reconcile before Ramis’ death in 2014.
***** A quick Google search will take you down quite the rabbit hole as to the true answer to this question.