- “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?”
This line, from Bill Murray’s character, an arrogant yet charming TV weatherman, is at the heart of 1993’s “Groundhog Day.”
The film follows Phil Connors, played by Murray, who is assigned to cover the annual groundhog day festival in the small town of Punxsutawney Pennsylvania on Feb. 2. Phil makes his contempt for the people of the town and the festival clear through non-ending snide remarks, much to the frustration of his good-natured producer, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell.
After covering the festival, Phil and his crew leave town, only for a blizzard to make them turn back to Punxsutawney. Upset at being forced to spend another night, Phil goes to bed early, but when he wakes, he finds that it is once again Feb. 2.
Phil stumbles through the events of the previous day, not sure what is happening. By the third day, Phil realizes that he is in a time loop, stuck repeating the events of groundhog day over and over, seemingly forever.
It is at this point the movie really takes off, as Phil starts to take advantage of his situation. Free from any consequence for his actions, he spends several days committing crimes, eating and drinking excessively, having one night stands and generally living large.
Eventually Phil tires of his hedonistic lifestyle and sets his sights on Rita. He spends many days attempting unsuccessfully to seduce her, learning her likes and dislikes, but not really caring about her. Each time Rita rebukes him, seeing that his motives are not genuine.
At rock bottom, Phil kills himself a number of times, but is unable to escape the time loop. Resigned to his fate and accepting himself for who he is, Phil resolves to improve his life and the lives of the people around him.
While this movie has been out for more than 25 years, the ending contains a few twists and turns of plot that are better left a surprise.
Since its release, “Groundhog Day” has perplexed, delighted and inspired fans around the world. Despite on paper having the appearance of a simple romantic comedy, there are at several elements that push “Groundhog Day” into the upper levels of great filmmaking, at least in this critic’s opinion.
Below, in no particular order, are a handful of elements that make “Groundhog Day” truly special:
- Neither Phil or the audience receive an explanation for the time loop. All Phil can do is react, unable to bargain with the ambiguous force that holds him hostage in time. This ambiguity has allowed people from all walks to life and religious backgrounds to interpret the movie however they like. Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, Christians and agnostics have all pulled their own interpretations from the movie, opening a channel for collaborative dialogue.
- Most of the movie’s success is owed to Murray. Murray’s natural charm and delivery helps the audience root for Phil, despite his many flaws. The film opens with Phil giving a weather broadcast. For a few minutes the audience is taken in by his charm, before he reveals his arrogance and self centeredness. Those few minutes are enough to get the audience on his side. Once in Punxsutawney, the film offsets Phil’s general annoyance with humanity by having most of the people he interacts with be irritating to the audience as well. Even as Phil starts to improve his life, the citizens of Punxsutawney remain flawed, showing how much he has grown.
- The chemistry between Murray and MacDowell is tangible. Although they are at odds for most of the film, there is an undercurrent of attraction between the two of them. While the “will they/won’t they” trope is a staple of romantic comedies, here the tension excels. Once Phil realizes that deep down he wants to emulate someone kind, optimistic and outgoing like Rita, there are a handful of truly beautiful and romantic moments in which Phil bares his soul, flaws and all.
Many words have been written about the meaning of “Groundhog Day,” as the open ended nature of the film allows everyone to view it through their own perspective. While many people from differing backgrounds have claimed to know with assurance what it means, the film ultimately means something different to everyone.
For me, it is a story about growth. I see shades of myself in Phil Connors, for better or worse. We all have qualities we want to improve upon; a vague notion that we can become better. However, we never seem to find the time, pushing our plans off for another day.
“I can do it tomorrow,” we say.
But if we learn anything from “Groundhog Day,” it is that tomorrow is not a guarantee.
All we have is today.