While it was released 30 years ago, Groundhog Day remains highly rewatchable due to it being a straightforward comedy with a surprising dose of philosophy. Like Joe Versus the Volcano a few years prior, Groundhog Day blends lighthearted humor with more profound themes about life and love, resulting in one of those rare motion pictures that resonates on multiple levels. Quite frankly, I think it’s brilliant.
For Murray, Groundhog Day marked the end of his mainstream comedy run that began with 1979’s Meatballs and featured the likes of Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and What About Bob? in 1991. From here on out, Murray would take bit parts in films like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin, Space Jam, and the dark comedy/thriller Wild Things before Wes Anderson and Sophia Coppola revitalized his career by casting him more or less as himself in dramatic (or darkly humorous) fare with 1998’s Rushmore and 2003’s Lost in Translation.
More pivotally, Groundhog Day afforded Murray a chance to show off his dramatic chops — something he tried with minimal success in The Razor’s Edge and (to a lesser extent) Quick Change. Phil Connors’ metamorphosis from a snarky weatherman to a congenial, compassionate, extremely talented, high-ranking resident of Punxsutawney remains one of the great movie character transformations.
Why Groundhog Day Is an Enduring Classic
For those who don’t know, Groundhog Day tells the story of Phil Connors, a stuck-in-the-rut weatherman who heads to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebrations. He ends up in a time loop that repeatedly forces him to relive February 2. Initially, he views the day as a curse. Eventually, he embraces the opportunity to embellish his life with generosity, kindheartedness, and romance.
What’s interesting about Groundhog Day is how it initially presents Phil as a curmudgeon, albeit one we rally around. Films such as Scrooged gave Murray a mean-spirited asshole vibe with few redemptive qualities. Here, director Harold Ramis (who co-wrote with Danny Rubin) introduces Phil as a snarky everyman stuck in a dead-end job, surrounded by people who look down on him. We get the feeling Phil used to be a respectable guy with a lust for life but never amounted to anything more than a deadbeat weather forecaster at a small new station. Hell, even the lowly camera guy (played by Chris Elliott) doesn’t respect him; nor does the new producer (Andie MacDowell), whose endless optimism, talent, and success further irk an already discontent Phil.
“I think that you could tell Bill’s character was really suffering then,” MacDowell said in a making-of interview. “Even though he was explosive and mean and cynical and all those things, you felt sorry for him because you knew he couldn’t be happy like that.”
Phil notes the number of times he’s covered the groundhog celebration and hopes this year leads to bigger and better things at larger networks. A fantastic video by Northern Diaries highlights this human problem of not living in the present day. For Phil, it’s all about what will happen tomorrow. He’s so busy worrying about the future that he’s not focusing on the present. So when he gets to Punxsutawney, he doesn’t stop to enjoy the people, the town, or the moment; he wants to leave as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, Phil possesses few qualities that would propel him to the fame and fortune he covets. In a sense, the man was already stuck in an endless cycle of misery, albeit made by his own hand, with no hope for a brighter future. As such, we feel a certain amount of empathy toward him. Ramis carefully frames Phil as a downtrodden soul who takes his frustrations out on the world rather than an out-and-out jerk.
For every cruel quip, Phil takes on even more punishment: a shovel smacks him in the head, he humiliates himself in front of a patrolman, gets stuck in a cold shower, sleeps in because of poor service, steps in an icy puddle, and is practically accosted by an insurance salesman (Stephen Tobolowsky). He’s an average guy whose anger stems largely from everyday life, which many will relate with.
Then, a miracle. Phil awakens the next morning, except it’s February 2, Groundhog Day, again. Something’s amiss.
Phil makes the same mistakes as the previous day, wakes up, and finds everything reset once more. Even the pencil he snapped has magically reformed. So, because he has nothing else better to do, he goes drinking and, with the help of two town drunks, has an epiphany:
Phil spends the second act abusing his power. He sleeps with random women, steals money, eats junk food, and tries to worm his way into Rita’s heart. Except, she’s able to see right through his hollow passion:
Then, like a Grand Theft Auto gamer, after they’ve applied all the cheats and quickly grown bored with the game, Phil unleashes his darker side, steals a truck carrying the groundhog (also named Phil), and drives over a cliff. Unfortunately, his suicide attempt proves futile, and he again wakes up to Sonny and Cher on February 2. He then goes on a suicide spree and kills himself in a variety of unique ways:
At this juncture, the man thinks he has nothing to live for. In Phil’s shallow mind, he achieved everything he could out of life — women, booze, sex, and endless viewings of a film called Heidi II. It never occurs to him to do anything more productive until Rita inspires him to do more with his infinite existence. She brings out the real Phil sans all the bullshit. At one point, he even reads poetry. “Only God can make a tree,” he recites, displaying a fundamental shift in his beliefs.
Astute viewers will recall Phil’s god complex early in the picture. As a weatherman, he believes he “makes the weather.” He tries to save a homeless man from certain death and tells Rita that he’s an actual god. “Not the God, but a god.”
Only after crumbling in humility can Phil fully rebuild himself physically, mentally, and emotionally. He reads books, plays the piano, learns how to ice sculpt, and gets to know the people around him more deeply. He enjoys a robust spiritual journey that carries him from a deadbeat cynic to a charismatic savant with a lust for life.
“It’s not being the hero of the town,” Tobolowsky explained, “it’s about doing what you can do in the moment to make things better instead of making things worse. If other people interpret that as you being the god of the town, which in a way he becomes, so be it. But that isn’t his aim.”
“When he stops worrying about himself all the time and starts living a life of service to others, then his life gets very full and rich indeed,” Ramis added.
The film then switches to Rita’s perspective. We see Phil in a new light: he’s loved by all, talented, ambitious, sensitive, and full of life, a far cry from the drunken miscreant we saw in the opening act.
It’s enough to peak Rita’s interest, so she buys him at an auction and spends the night with him. By all accounts, they don’t have sex — Phil merely dozes off, perhaps exhausted from the day’s events — but their relationship is built on a firmer foundation thanks to Phil’s newfound outlook on life. He’s confident, happy, and self-assured, no longer weighed down by the world but energized by the prospect of living. It took years (decades even), but Phil finally answered the question posed early in the picture: “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 was already stuck living the same day on repeat but found meaning in his existence. By the film’s end, he possesses an array of talents that will likely earn him a better career; his attitude has shifted, which will afford him more friends; and his heart has increased, which prompts a substantial relationship with the woman he loves.
Phil experiences a fundamental change that resonates with everyone, as noted by Harold Ramis:
It’s rare to find a picture that nearly every moviegoer can identify with on a deeper, emotional level. The philosophical themes about the very nature of our existence elevate Groundhog Day above your typical rom-com so that it becomes a near-religious experience. Who doesn’t look at themselves in the mirror each morning and question the meaning behind it all? Why do we work? Why do we follow simplistic routines? How do we break the cycle?
Interestingly, Phil doesn’t make any radical changes to his routine. Even in the third act, he wakes up at 6 a.m., goes to work, and performs daily rituals. The difference is his extracurricular activities revolve around service to others — he helps a trio of older women with their car, saves a kid from falling out of a tree, and prevents a man from choking to death. (Phil’s early scenes always frame him in isolation, while the later stages pair him with others.)
Groundhog Day suggests it’s not necessarily about breaking the cycle but rather doing more with it — a simple but effective message. Little wonder the National Film Preservation Board selected that movie for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2006.
Surprisingly, Groundhog Day was a minor success. The film did well compared to its budget and earned a healthy $71 million at the domestic box office — good, but a far cry from Murray’s more popular endeavors. I imagine audiences shared my sentiments and thought it was little more than a fun comedy. Even Roger Ebert dismissed it in his earlier review before amending his thoughts. “Groundhog Day is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is,” the late critic wrote.
Indeed, I didn’t pick up on the film’s heavier themes until after countless viewings during my family’s weekly Friday movie night. We must have watched it hundreds of times during my youth. Silly me.
To this day, Groundhog Day still astonishes me. I find new elements I didn’t catch before and continue to appreciate its brilliance. Whether by design or not, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray made a deeply profound comedy classic worth watching again and again and again…