“What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
If you keep up at all on your marmot-related holidays, then you know that today, February 2nd, is Groundhog Day. Well, today as you read this, anyway. Not today as I write this. For while I’ve scheduled this article for publication at 6:00 a.m. Punxsutawney time, for the day in question, I’m actually writing it about a week in advance. This is partly just to ensure that it actually gets posted on time, but mostly it’s because as fun as these write-ups are, they’re also a lot of work. And I don’t like to work on my birthday.
Yes, I was born on Groundhog Day. And since 1993, any time somebody finds that out, I can count on a particular question being asked. Whether it was a teacher, a friend, or a prospective employer, they’ve all got to know: “Have you seen that Bill Murray movie? What did you think?”
It’s like I’m caught in some kind of loop….
Karmic satisfaction in 3… 2… 1…
Fortunately for the continuing unbrokenness of the noses of everyone around me, not only have I seen the film, several times, I love it. If, somehow, you don’t know the plot of this film, it’s pretty simple. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a jaded, misanthropic TV weatherman with a large ego and little interest in what other people think. Director Harold Ramis (who you’ll remember from Bill Murray’s previous big hit, Ghostbusters) originally had Tom Hanks pegged for the role, but reconsidered and went with Murray; as Hanks himself noted, if Phil had been played by Hanks, everybody would expect him to be a nice guy underneath it all, and “with Bill you’re never quite sure.” Stationed in Pittsburgh, Phil is sent — once again — to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of the world’s most famous woodchuck weatherman, Punxsutawney Phil. Going along with him is his usual cameraman, Larry, with whom he shares a mutual disdain (Chris Elliott, in a minor role that is nevertheless probably his best). Also going along is his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and she poses a particular irritant for Phil; she’s charming, playful, and almost naive, everything that Phil isn’t… but she’s also sharp enough to pick up on his sarcasm and is perfectly willing to call him out on his bullshit. Where Phil can’t wait to just do the job and get out, Rita wants to stay in Punxsutawney for all of the festivities. The trio arrive late on February 1st, and after spending a night in his room at a bed and breakfast, Phil awakes at 6:00 a.m. to find that it is now Groundhog Day.
“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”
What transpires is one of the most irritating days of Phil’s life. It’s not enough that he has to cover an event that he doesn’t care about, or deal with the indignity of the constant jokes a weatherman named Phil is going to get in a festival centered around Punxsutawney Phil. It’s not even that he has to keep putting up with his smart-aleck cameraman, or his too-cheerful producer. No, random happenstance keeps piling on more and more misfortunes for him to deal with. People keep making inane chit-chat with him, despite his attempts to brush them off. He’s accosted by a former high school classmate, Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky at his irritating best). Phil clearly never liked Ned to begin with, but Ned seems oblivious to this, and keeps yammering at him with lame jokes and attempts to sell him life insurance. He gets soaked by stepping into a sinkhole. People keep arguing with him about the blizzard he predicted would miss them. And then, to make matters worse… he was wrong about that. The blizzard hits, and all roads out of town are closed. Chance of departure… considerably less than 100%. He tries to call out, but the lines are down. Stuck in town for another night, he takes a shower — ice cold because the water heater broke — and goes to bed. After spending the night in his room at the bed and breakfast, Phil awakes at 6:00 a.m. to find that it is now Groundhog Day. Again.
“It’s still just once a year, isn’t it?”
At first Phil muddles confusedly through; it’s never expressly stated what he thinks is going on at this point, but he seems to think it’s a weird case of déjà vu, or perhaps a strangely prescient dream, as everyone goes through exactly the same actions as before. But when he wakes up and it is Groundhog Day again, Phil realizes that he is somehow trapped in a loop, living the same day over and over again. And everyone and everything else plays out exactly the same as before, unless Phil himself changes his actions (and thus their reactions to him). Only Phil remembers the previous Groundhog Days, only Phil’s actions make one iteration different from the next. But no matter what he does, Phil can’t stop there from being another iteration. Every morning, he wakes up, to find it is once again Groundhog Day.
At first he seeks help, but nobody believes he’s genuinely going through a loop. He’s examined by a doctor (Ramis, in a cameo), but there’s nothing physically wrong with him. He talks to a psychologist, but the small town psych isn’t remotely equipped to deal with Phil’s problem, even if it were purely psychological — he even asks the guy for whom there are no tomorrows if he can come in the next day. Phil’s response is to simply pull the pillow over his head and start punching it. Eventually Phil starts to have some fun with his ability to learn anything, do anything within the limited confines of the town. He goes on a mad driving spree, realizing there are no consequences to his actions when he always resets at six in the morning. He casually robs an armored truck by studying the actions the drivers go through on each iteration of the day. He asks an attractive local named Nancy (Marita Geraghty) her personal details, and on the next iteration uses those details to seduce her. In general, he acts like an asshole who has just discovered that his every action comes consequence free… because for him, it does. The first section of the film is high comedy, and Murray is at his best, mugging for the camera and delivering hilarious one-liners.
“Yeah, three cheeseburgers, two large fries, two chocolate shakes and one large coke.” “And some flapjacks.”
But even a man for whom nothing ever changes can’t remain unchanging forever. Phil finds himself smitten with Rita, which becomes obvious during his seduction of Nancy. So he attempts the same thing with Rita, finding out her personal interests, what she likes and doesn’t like, what she finds romantic or charming. And he sets to applying that in iteration after iteration… and gets repeatedly slapped silly for his efforts. Without ever laying it on so thick that the audience feels like the film is playing with a heavy hand, the film does a good job of showing both why Phil is attracted to Rita, and why Rita continually rebuffs him. She’s genuine, the kind of person who wears her heart on her sleeve and is unashamed to express what they feel; she’s perhaps just a tad too perfect, but it’s balanced by the fact that unlike a lot of open-hearted “dream girls” in films, she’s not an idiot. She sees right through Phil’s bullshit, and that’s exactly what it is. Phil’s still the same jerk he’s always been, and no matter how much he wines and dines her, no matter how many of her favorite things he learns, he can’t hide who he really is.
Reportedly, Ramis and Murray had a lot of discussions about the tone of the movie. Ramis wanted to keep it very light-hearted; Murray wanted to make it more dramatic, focus on the horror of re-living the same day indefinitely. The result was a film that balances the two positions, and in the second act, Murray’s vision starts playing out. Convinced by Rita’s repeated rebuffs that he can’t truly change anything, Phil becomes despondent. In desperation for a way out of the loop — any way out — he kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil from his caretaker (Bill’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray), and takes him on a wild car chase, with the intent of ending it all for both of them, and so hopefully breaking the curse. It fails. He electrocutes himself, gets himself hit by a truck, jumps off a tall building. It’s interesting that the movie shows, in some of these scenes, that the day continues on without him. Larry and Rita identify the body, and express shock and grief over Phil’s suicides. But every morning, at 6:00 a.m., Phil awakes healthy and whole in his room at the bed and breakfast to find that it is, once again, Groundhog Day. The exact amount of time that Phil spends in the loop is never specified, but we know it’s at least several months from some of the things he says. The word of Ramis is that they considered several different possibilities, from a couple weeks to a thousand years, before settling on approximately 10 years worth of Groundhog Days. That may not seem like much compared to a millennium, but that’s still over 3600 iterations of the same day, over and over again, with no end in sight. And Phil can’t even kill himself to get out of it. To his dismay, he finds that there is truly no escape, and in this sequence the film really blends the ideas of both Ramis and Murray; it shows the horror of the situation, and yet even Phil’s suicides are played for some dark humor.
“Don’t drive angry! Don’t drive angry!”
Eventually, at his lowest point, despairing even of his ability to end his own life, he again tells Rita about the loop, as he did on the third Groundhog Day. This time, by demonstrating how he knows about everyone in the town, and predicting their actions, he’s able to convince her that it’s not just in his head. Of course, come six o’clock, the day resets and she remembers none of it. But before that, she makes the observation that maybe it’s not a curse. That’s all she says, but it starts the third act of the film, and finally Phil seems to get it. He can’t change the world, he can’t change his fate. He can’t even change Punxsutawney beyond the confines of that one day. But he can change himself, he can try to be the best person he can be, and make the day as good as he can for everyone else. Even with his ability to know everything going on in Punxsutawney he still has limits — he tries and fails repeatedly to save one old man whose time was simply up — but he does what he can to make the world a better place, even if he has to re-do it all again the next day. He ceases to be a selfish jerk, puts others before himself, while at the same time bettering himself and learning enough skills to be a true Renaissance man, the kind of man who would deserve Rita. And at the end of a perfect day, he finally gets the girl, as she spends the night with him (though he falls asleep as soon as they hit the bed). After spending the night in his room at the bed and breakfast, Phil awakes at 6:00 a.m. to find that it is now… February 3rd.
“Something is… different.” “Good or bad?” “Anything different is good.”
The nature of the curse is never explained in the movie itself. In interviews, Ramis has stated that in the original script, Phil was cursed by an ex-girlfriend to repeat the day until he found true love, but this was excised from the final version of the film. This is a good thing. If that scene had been included at the beginning, we all would know what was coming, and it would feel a lot more like a standard romantic comedy. It’s still sometimes labeled a romantic comedy, and the description isn’t entirely inappropriate, but without the curse spelled out, the focus shifts from “Phil & Rita” to just “Phil”, to the betterment of the movie. It becomes a study in character development, as Phil grows from a selfish, misanthropic, self-limited jerk to a man who genuinely cares about others, is enthusiastic about learning new things, and who has grown to love the town he once hated passionately. Getting the girl doesn’t break Phil out of the loop. Deserving to does.
Groundhog Day is a lot of things in one tight film. It’s both a light and a dark comedy that brings serious laughs, it’s a romantic comedy that’s not a “chick flick”, it’s a dramatic film that makes people ponder about life and the significance of our actions. The film has gone on to be one of the best regarded comedies ever made. Bravo network put it at #32 on their list of the 100 Funniest Movies. The American Film Institute had it at #34 on their list of “100 Years, 100 Laughs”… and #8 on their Top 10 Fantasy Movies. When Timeout London polled comedians and comic writers for the 100 best comedies ever made, Groundhog Day came in at #8. The Writers Guild of America put it at #27 on their list of the 101 Best Screenplays. And in 2006, it was added to the United States National Film Registry, as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, alongside Rocky, Blazing Saddles, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Everywhere you look, the film has won critical acclaim.
Sadly, however, fictional characters are ineligible for music awards.
It’s also won over pop culture. “Groundhog Day”, or just “groundhogging” has become a synonym for déjà vu or just being stuck in a repetitive rut. It’s been used as a metaphor for Purgatory, for the cycle of reincarnation, and when it was released in California, it was picketed by Hassidic Jews (according to Ramis), who weren’t protesting but were instead using the movie as a conversation starter (“Do you feel like you’re stuck in a loop?”) It’s even been used by economists as a metaphor for systems with perfect information. It seems that no matter who you are, there’s something profound to look for in a film that manages to always be hilarious instead of preachy.
Some films are iconic examples of a particular aspect of film-making, where they do one thing supremely well and don’t let anything else draw the focus away. Groundhog Day may be the film for pure character development. Phil Connors is every stage of the everyman character, all in the same film. He acts out the way we all do when we’re having a bad day. He becomes the man we all hope we are on our best day. And the film gets absolutely everything else out of the way for the sake of that character development… and makes it both poignant and painfully funny all at the same time.
It’s one of my favorite films… and judging from the critical acclaim, it’s pretty clear I’m not the only one on that.
“Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.”