On Groundhog Day, I watched “Groundhog Day.” For those of you who have never seen this gem of a movie, it’s well worth a watch. I always try to watch it on Groundhog Day, but I don’t always have time. The holiday was on a Friday this year, and I had this strange compulsion all day to remember to watch it.
How to even begin to describe it? It’s a romantic comedy, certainly, depicting a romance between Phil Connors, played by the inimitable Bill Murray, and Rita Hanson, played by the effervescent Andie MacDowell. Phil is a local weatherman on Pittsburgh television, and he and Rita, his producer, are sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, with their cameraman Larry, played by Chris Elliott, to film a short segment about Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous groundhog weatherman. The complication? Phil is a thoroughly arrogant jerk, and Rita is almost chirpily upbeat — a complete romantic mismatch.
They stay overnight in Punxsutawney and film the segment on Groundhog Day, as planned. They set out for home but are unable to return to Pittsburgh because of a snowstorm (that Phil mis-predicted in his newscast, by the way), and must return to Punxsutawney for another night. Here’s where things get weird.
Phil wakes up the next morning to the same song on the radio from Groundhog Day. As he goes about the morning, everything is the same. He soon realizes he is repeating “yesterday.” It’s Groundhog Day again. When he goes to sleep that night on Groundhog Day, he wakes up on Groundhog Day, and everything repeats exactly. No one but him recognizes what is happening. No matter what he does during the day, he always wakes up on Groundhog Day and repeats it. He’s caught in a “time loop.”
Because of the time loop, some people refer to Groundhog Day as a science fiction movie, but that’s not strictly correct. We never find out exactly why Phil is repeating Groundhog Day over and over. It just happens. There is no “science” in this fiction. Some people refer to it as “fantasy,” but that’s true in only the most general sense.
It’s more extended parable than anything. As Phil repeats his day over and over, he goes through cycles of self-indulgent pleasure-seeking; crushing, suicidal despair; grudging acceptance of the cruelty of wisdom; patient mastery of knowledge; and a real change of life by performing good deeds. It’s an amazing transformation.
Perhaps the most amazing part is how he goes from seeing Rita solely as an object for his lust to realizing that she is the love of his life. The catch is that she only knows him like he was the night of Feb. 1! He spends much of the film scheming to find ways to impress her, but he must start over again every morning. She inspires his transformation, but never sees it.
After I watch a movie, I usually look it up on Wikipedia for some general information about its history — that’s when I realized it was so important that I watch the movie last Friday. It was released in 1993, so this year is its 25th anniversary.
A slew of articles marked the anniversary. Basically, the movie opened to good, but not great reviews, in 1993. The critical reputation of the film has increased significantly since then to the point that many of the critics have revised their opinions to say that it’s a much better film than they thought it was. Unlike most secular movies, there are religious interpretations galore, most notably from Buddhist and Christian perspectives.
Phil is truly an interesting ethical case study. He isn’t evil, really, but he is certainly self-absorbed to the point of utter tragedy. He uses deceit to get what he wants, for example, but never violence — even though he could get away with it since there is literally no tomorrow for him — but he’s always on a sort of ethical border. There’s a line from the Katha Upanishad – “The path to salvation is narrow and as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.” Phil walks a razor’s edge all through the movie.
Great stories always invite me to put myself in the place of the characters and think about what I would do in their circumstances. What if I repeated the same day over and over? I’d like to think that I’d come to a better solution than Phil, sooner, but I’m not sure. There’s much speculation on how many Groundhog Days Phil repeats. The director, Harold Ramis, after offering some lower estimates, finally decided that it was roughly 35 years worth — 12,775 repetitions. That’s a lot of time to think.
It’s easy to tell ourselves to live “one day at a time,” but what if it’s “one day for ALL time,” and not even your best day? Not your worst day, either, but just an annoying, frustrating, “normal” day? That’s a big question for a romantic comedy — which usually are light-hearted — to ask.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions reflected are his own.