Revisiting Groundhog Day

By Andrew Culbertson

Andrew Culbertson is an Administrative Judge with the EEOC in Washington, D.C. This is his first published piece of film criticism.


A decade after its release, the most enduring aspect of Groundhog Day may be its title. Indeed, Groundhog Day is no longer simply a day, but a term that is emblematic of a repetitive situation. That the term lives on in this guise is certainly not proof of the film's significance, and the decision to cast Bill Murray as the protagonist suggests that the film's creators, including director Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin, were not striving for significance. Murray's career to that point had been its own Groundhog Day, of sorts, consisting largely of a series of vehicles for the comedian cum actor to engage in his predictable, albeit occasionally enjoyable, comedic shtick. On its most basic level, Groundhog Day is no exception, and frame-for-frame it may be the uber-Murray film. Not only are his comedic talents evidenced in full, but he's in (and stealing) nearly every scene. But Ramis and Rubin were interested in much more than simply humor. In many respects, comedy is merely the "maguffin," as the film poses a number of questions about our ability to shape our reality and improve our lots while demonstrating a refreshing capacity for avoiding easy answers and predictable plot twists.

Murray is Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman who's a stereotype of the local media personality suffering the indignities of Podunk while hoping to be discovered by a national network. One particular indignity for Phil is his annual trek to nearby Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day. As the film begins, Phil is en route to Punxsutawney for the festivities and making life miserable for producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). Phil is both arrogant and snide, and everyone who comes into contact with him walks away verbally scathed (during a chance encounter with a fellow high school alumnus on a Punxsutawney street corner, Phil proclaims, "I'd love to stand here and talk to you. But I'm not going to.").

In a telling piece of foreshadowing, the celebrated groundhog (also named Phil) sees his shadow, portending six more weeks of winter. When a blizzard forces Phil and crew to spend an extra night in Punxsutawney, he awakes the following morning to discover that, once again, it's Groundhog Day. Phil's initial reaction is, understandably, disbelief. But after the cycle continues to repeat, he comes to the realization that he is stuck on Groundhog Day. Not only does he retain memories from each prior version of the day, but he's the only one who does as the other characters believe they are living the day for the first time. The viewer is thereafter treated to one of the cinema's greatest exercises in repetition. We not only view certain scenes multiple times, but we view multiple variations of those scenes, which include Phil waking at 6:00 each morning to a clock radio spewing the refrain from Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," and Phil's broadcast following the groundhog's "forecast." The key to escape, which the audience realizes long before Phil does, is that he must become a better person.

Placing Phil's predicament within the context of Groundhog Day seems almost whimsical, and is faintly evocative of Murray's battles with a gopher in Caddyshack. But the choice of the day was certainly not based on mere whimsy. No one may actually believe that winter's duration is contingent on whether the groundhog sees his shadow. Yet the day's appeal rests in the promise of spring at a time when most are weary of winter. That promise is obviously literal, but from a figurative standpoint it can symbolize an individual's struggle to emerge from his own personal "winter." For Phil, the literal and figurative happen to be merged as his escape from the actual winter is entirely contingent on his ability to improve himself.

Hollywood had, of course, already given us the evil or misguided character who achieves an epiphany with the assistance of supernatural entities. The most prominent of these are Ebenezer Scrooge in many versions/variations of The Christmas Carol (including a forgettable one with Murray) and George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. The major difference between those films and Groundhog Day, and what may be Groundhog Day's most ingenious aspect, is that whatever is responsible for Phil's plight is never identified. Introducing the entity, whether it be an angel, ghost, or god of some kind, would certainly have complicated what is essentially a minimalist plot. More significantly, it would have had the deleterious effect of cheapening Phil's transformation. With apologies to Dickens, genuine self-improvement does not happen overnight, even when one is coerced by ghosts. Phil's transformation is also the result of coercion, but it's a slow, grueling process in which Phil is doing most of the work. The entity keeps Phil in the time warp, but it does nothing to assist him, such as showing him the error of his ways or indicate the means of escape. In that way, the film never condescends to its audience by suggesting that actual change is a simple endeavor.

It would have been easy for the film's self-improvement message to fall flat in a drama, but it could just as easily have flopped in its comedic format. That it didn't is attributable, in large part, to the fact that the film mined the premise for nearly all of its comedic value while rarely overplaying the gimmicks that accompany it. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is Phil's ability to do anything he wants without consequence beyond each particular version of Groundhog Day. These happen to be the scenes in which Murray is in his element, as he is afforded the opportunity to act gluttonous, lecherous, villainous, and to even don Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti western" attire. Not surprisingly, the notion of "no consequences" happens to be the most superficially attractive aspect of Phil's situation. Watching Phil gorge himself at a table filled with various pastries may be funny, but it's also tempting. Who hasn't been intrigued, at some point, by the idea of actions without consequences? It's a fiction, of course, which may not be a bad thing as Phil becomes thoroughly bored with engaging in activities that have no consequence beyond that day.

The one thing that is of consequence to Phil is his ability to accumulate knowledge from each version of Groundhog Day. At the outset, his use of the knowledge is for typically ignoble purposes, such as robbing a bank and preying on unsuspecting women. One such woman is Rita, and Phil makes a concerted effort to learn everything he can about her as a means of tricking her into believing that they share a variety of interests. But Rita, whose allegorical significance is essential to the story, ultimately sees through his machinations. She is the "beauty" to Phil's "beast," and is unattainable so long as he remains in that state. It's when Phil realizes that Rita is impervious to his advances that the film again eschews convention. Phil realizes that he doesn't deserve Rita in any capacity, and it would have been easy to set him on the path of self-improvement as a means of winning her affections. The film avoids that predictable scenario, thereby remaining faithful to the essence of Phil's character. He's a sleaze, and not capable at that point of anything more than pretending to be a better person than he is.

What Phil does instead, and which is entirely in keeping with his character, is take the cowards way out. He commits suicide, or at least tries to, as after each grisly denouement he wakes up to find that it's still Groundhog Day. Now faced with the prospect that escape is seemingly impossible, Phil finally begins his journey to salvation. His actions at this point are not driven by his desire to escape or as a means of attaining Rita, but simply by the realization that the only way to be happy in his never-changing environs is to change himself. Phil's continuous exposure to Rita's humanity certainly plays a part in his decision to change, and she helps him realize that he's been afforded the gift of the "eternal snow day," an infinite amount of time in which to improve. He finally uses his ability to gain knowledge for constructive purposes, becoming the town's good Samaritan and developing a variety of cultural interests such as playing the piano, speaking French, and ice sculpting. Therein lies the answer, for when Phil finally achieves contentment, telling Rita that "no matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now," he's allowed to proceed to February 3rd.

Casting Murray in the role of a character who ice sculpts and speaks French poetry was not without certain risks. Prior collaborations between Murray and Ramis (as an actor) included such films as Stripes and Ghostbusters in which Murray played wacky, off-beat characters who are ostensibly one-dimensional and short on anything approaching genuine emotion. But the nature of Phil's predicament involves a spectrum of emotions, including disbelief, despair, exuberance, and resignation. Although Murray occasionally exhibits the faux-seriousness which he has perfected, he's generally believable in even the most serious scenes (much less believable is that Rita falls in love with the perfected version of Phil over the course of one day).

Murray's performance is evocative of Jim Carrey's in The Truman Show, another thought-provoking fantasy that examined fundamental questions about reality and existence in a largely comedic context. Although the two characters happen to face different problems, their situations have a certain antithetical symmetry. Truman, whose reality is everyone else's television show, is the only character unaware of his situation, while Phil is the only character aware of his. For Truman, escaping his situation means that he becomes a real person, as opposed to a television character, while Phil is required to become a real person before he can escape.

Existential questions aside, the idea with the most resonance is probably the film's most evident metaphor. Many of us live the same day over and over, symbolically if not literally. Like Phil, the only way to escape the rut is to change, if not ourselves, then at least our circumstances. It's not until we get out of the rut that we can move on to the next stage of our lives. It's the most American of themes, the idea that we can reinvent ourselves and that, sometimes, reinventing ourselves is the only means of redeeming our lives. It was a lesson Kane never learned and that Gatsby couldn't quite pull off. Phil Connors will never pack their dramatic punch. But he does get the girl and lives happily ever after. It's a Hollywood ending in a most un-Hollywood film.

                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002