Phil Connors is a jaded, sarcastic weather “personality” who finds joy in nothing. He doesn’t delight in his work, or his coworkers, or especially in the idea of heading up to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania just to cover a yearly ritual he thinks is ridiculous. How can a groundhog tell the weather? Groundhog Day, however, isn’t about the rodent, or the weather, or really about Phil the human. If you had a chance to live as long as you could possibly want, and for much longer, what would you do to put purpose into your days?
One moment at a time
Groundhog Day begins without remark. On the first of February, Phil Connors agrees to cover Punxsutawney Phil’s forthcoming prediction but brings no enthusiasm to the idea, establishing himself immediately as someone who will complain about pretty much anything. Connors tries to proposition his pretty colleague Rita and is gently turned down. The next morning, his alarm clock awakens him at 6:00 sharp to the sound of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” It will continue to do so. While not hugely important, the song is an indelible part of this film’s central motif, and it signals to our initially unlikable hero that he’s about to begin the second day of February … over and over again.
It wouldn’t do justice to a movie like this to simply try to recite and comment on its plot. Many scenes from the movie repeat while a tiny portion of newscaster Phil’s life plays out on an unending loop, changing only minor elements that sometimes prove themselves important later. What’s more remarkable is the film’s own restraint: in a story that reuses so much content, one wonders if it was a huge hassle to get so many actors and extras to repeat the same actions and lines countless times; the movie can’t always just make its own stock footage, since each iteration of Phil’s day is different in some way from the last. Many of the characters’ exaggerations only make them more memorable: Ned, the astoundingly enthusiastic life-insurance salesman; the kindhearted and elderly Mrs. Lancaster; the perhaps easily wooed Nancy; and most importantly, Rita and Larry, Phil’s coworkers who are just as distrustful of him as he is of everything, making his eventual attempts at sincerity come off as a ruse.
Prognosticator of prognosticators
Though the movie’s marketing is up-front about its premise (see the film poster), the story doesn’t reveal its big “secret” right away. Six o’clock comes. The song repeats, and the enthusiastic radio announcers come on the air. Phil thinks they’re playing yesterday’s tape but eventually notices that the people are congregating outside for the Groundhog Day festival once more. It’s genuinely impressive how many ways the movie comes up with to depict what are, for a time, the same sequence of festival events. Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction never changes, nor does his handlers’ reading of his “letter,” nor does the crowd’s dismayed reaction. Connors, however, brings an unpredictable demeanor to an utterly predictable day, living some periods of time in boredom, others in sadness, and others in sheer insanity once he has a truly dark realization of what he can (but shouldn’t) do with his life.
And so it goes–Phil’s story becomes one of actions and consequences, because while accountability for his behavior is no issue, he can romance and bed most any girl in town, but not Rita. She knows he’s selfish, and his tricks won’t work on her. (In regards to another girl, I think it’s important to note that some of his actions come across as genuinely creepy–while the movie never becomes deeply explicit or disturbing, Phil’s treatment of one woman essentially tries to pressure her into sex before she’s ready, just so he won’t have to worry about the day resetting before he can have his way with her.)
As the movie goes on, Phil and Rita begin spending more time together, and despite her having no knowledge of what happens to Phil each ‘day,’ she’s still unsure of what to do with him. “If you only had one day to live,” Phil asks of her, “what would you do with it?” It’s an invaluable question that sets the tone and the message for the whole story. Phil’s motivations for trying to get close to Rita are all about his wants and not her needs, but nonetheless he is trying to learn more about the girl he’s most interested in. (Larry, whom the story establishes early on as another potential partner, disappears for much of the story.)
The meaning of our days
The movie’s numerous resets mostly revisit scenes that are integral to the plot, so you’ll have to suffer through the Groundhog Day festival, Ned’s goofiness, and “I Got You Babe” a few times but not incessantly. Phil’s insincerity gets exposed and slapped night after night, and while the world around Phil always seems to go back to the way it was, he retains all of his memories, for better and for worse. He uses his time to learn an amazing number of hobbies and skills, even being acknowledged as a doctor at one point. (“Doctor Phil,” indeed. All of these things would have taken years’ worth of repeated days to learn.)
Phil’s arc is one that brings him toward maturity. Will he give others compliments because he cares about them or because he thinks that’s what they want to hear? Will he let others make decisions on their time, or will he pressure them? These are decisions any of us can find ourselves making, and the movie feels as instructional as it is entertaining. Phil, whose name reminds me of the Greek philia, does eventually learn that the beauty of life isn’t found in infinite achievement or in unrestrained hedonism. It’s in learning to love and show compassion for the people and the world around us. While spirituality doesn’t really come up except for one bizarre moment, another scene of a bachelor-auction fundraiser brings this Biblical excerpt to the front of my mind–“… For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14, New International Version) The scene ends quietly but with power.
My favorite moment in the whole film is one scene where Phil outright asks Rita what he can do for her. It’s not a moment of desperation, fear, or worry, and it’s not a moment of him simply trying to get her to give something else up. It’s taken a lot of time, but Phil shows himself to be someone who is willing to care for his beloved’s needs. While his journey isn’t as instantly inspiring as perhaps WALL-E’s, it definitely feels like it’s on its way. And I feel that is as much as I could ask.
Conclusion: Winter is just another step in the cycle of life
Every day is precious. Good or bad, it has worth, meaning, and value, and the same is true of each human life. In just one of these days, Bill Murray as Phil Connors learns enough wisdom to fill a lifetime, and even without development arcs of their own, several other characters prove themselves to be complex and multifaceted individuals, making for a story that is at once easy to follow and profound in its implications. It’s quite often wonderful to see comedians step out of their expected comfort zones; Will Ferrell was a marvel in Stranger than Fiction, as was Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me, and I will gladly say the same about Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, despite the latter’s still impressive range of emotions feeling a bit muted in comparison.
Even as some scenes and jokes are too sexually suggestive or violent for especially young viewers, the film’s story for the most part is a gentle and morally responsible encouragement for Phil and the viewer to care about someone or something other than self-interest. What’s truly interesting is that Groundhog Day uses one of its saddest moments to showcase how one character truly feels about another–and that it’s not a very positive feeling. That can serve as a wake-up call for the characters and perhaps for us: how should we want others, especially God, to think of us when our time comes? What will we want to have left behind for those after us to experience? Though some aspects of his development seem to happen simply because the plot needs them to, it’s a joy to watch Phil Connors turn from someone who cares only for his own desires, into someone who desires to make his world beautiful. And that is a worthy goal for any of us, no matter what day it is, and no matter if tomorrow ever comes.
Rise and shine.