GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)

  • Director: Harold Ramis
  • Writers: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, Marita Geraghty, and Angela Paton
  • Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on AMC app, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Groundhog Day should not work under the rules of conventional moviemaking. It doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense, and nothing that happens in it is really ever explained. Its only real arc is a somewhat vague emotional one. People continue to debate how much time actually passes in it. Yet it was not only a financial success at the box office, it has in the years since had the staying power most of its contemporaries could only dream. Not just me but many real critics, so to speak, have called it things like “the best comedy of the 1990s.” Yet the reason it works so well is not because it is super funny, though it is, but for more indefinite, philosophical reasons. There are genuinely not that many movies that can genuinely claim to be “about” the meaning of life, and even fewer that don’t seem to think they already have it figured out.

The general plot is so well known that there is probably a non-insignificant number of people who know the term “groundhog day” to describe doing something over and over who don’t actually realize that the saying comes from this movie. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a smug Pennsylvania weatherman who is assigned to cover the annual “Groundhog Day” festival in the small town of Punxsatawney. Non-Americans may not know that this is a real thing, where every February 2nd the locals take a groundhog out of a tree stump (called, as this movie makes sure you know, “Gobbler’s Knob”), and determine whether he “sees his shadow” or not. If so, the tradition goes that there will be “six more weeks of winter.” Much to his dismay, Phil finds himself reliving this particular February 2nd again and again and again. Every time he wakes up, it’s 6am the same day again, with “I’ve Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher playing on his clock radio. 

This turned out to be the last of a string of collaborations between Murray and director Harold Ramis, who makes a cameo as a neurologist that Phil goes to see while he’s initially trying to figure out what’s going on. After working together on 1979’s Meatballs, Ramis and Murray collaborated in some capacity together on Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II. But they didn’t see eye-to-eye on the direction of Groundhog Day, with Murray wanting to focus on the “philosophy” of his character’s situation and Ramis just wanting to make a successful comedy. The end product is somewhere in the middle, and may have led to the movie’s enduring success. However, Ramis and Murray didn’t speak again for many years.

There is never any explanation of what is happening to Phil, nor is there ever any sort of “quest” where he tries to find a way out. It is beyond explanation. The script is loosely structured along the lines of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Once it becomes clear this is just going to keep happening, the first thing Phil really does is be selfish. He finds out information about Groundhog Festival attendee Nancy (Marita Geraghty) to get her to sleep with him. But when he tries the same tactics on his beautiful producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), she eventually grows suspicious and rejects him. That is when Phil slides into depression and tries again and again to kill himself, even, in the movie’s silliest sequence, kidnapping the famous groundhog and driving his car off a cliff. No matter what, he keeps waking up the same morning. It’s only when he starts improving himself for the sake of improving himself (learning piano and ice sculpting) and trying to help the people around him with no expectation of getting anything that Rita actually falls for him, and once she does it is suddenly the next day.

Groundhog Day did not invent the idea of the “time loop,” which has been appearing in various forms in science fiction and fantasy for many decades (there’s a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode with this general premise, for example, that first aired about a year before this movie came out), but it became by far the best known version of the trope, and the version of it that all the subsequent takes have been imitating or reacting to. Just in the last couple years, Russian Doll basically made the concept into a Netflix TV series, while the very fun movie Palm Springs is basically a more millennial-ish take on the same concept, with the twist that both of the romantic leads keep repeating the same day instead of just one. I do recommend the latter, which is on Hulu currently, if you get the chance. It does other interesting things with a very similar concept.

I think one of the biggest reasons it works so well, from a purely mechanical standpoint, is the way that the movie never quite repeats the same scene twice in quite the same way. There are lots of scenes that we see and understand that Phil has been there so many times before, but the movie doesn’t have to actually show us those scenes to get us there. This has spawned a surprising amount of debate regarding just how long Phil is stuck reliving his day. There is the impression that there are years and years we don’t see, but we feel that they’re there. Ramis has given estimates ranging from ten to forty years in various interviews. Co-writer Danny Rubin said that “for him” it was a hundred years. One scholar (in a book just called Groundhog Day) wrote that, just as there’s no explanation for the time loop, Phil has no way of knowing how long he is stuck. “The length of time is only as long as it takes for Phil to become a better person.”

There are perhaps not that many movies that could sustain entire books, but this is certainly one of them. There is something about it that leads one, I think, to laugh while it’s happening but be left thinking about in a deeper sense afterward. The movie’s Wikipedia page notes that the following possibilities have been suggested by various scholars for what the groundhog, “Punxsawtawney Phil,” is supposed to symbolize: “Jesus Christ, the ‘Nietzschean concept of Eternal Return,’ the ‘spirit of Judaism,’ and ‘the essence of homeopathy.’” But if it was a question of solving a puzzle or assigning allegorical meanings, we would not have the same relationship to the movie. In some ways we all feel like Phil, even before the pandemic trapped many of us in the same routines. In one scene, Phil asks a couple of local barflies (Rick Ducummun and Rick Overton) if they “know what it’s like to be stuck in a place where nothing you do matters.” He is talking about his own situation, of course, but both men immediately nod. We’ve all been there.

Despite his many conflicts on and off set with Ramis during the movie, Murray’s brilliant performance turned out to open many new doors for him. It doesn’t seem so far from this role to some of the slightly more dramatic roles we’ve seen from Murray since, such as in Lost in Translation, various Wes Anderson movies, or this year’s On the Rocks. I’d also like to point out Stephen Tobolowsky, one of those veteran character actors most people have probably seen without actually knowing his name. Here he plays Ned Ryerson, an extremely annoying insurance salesman Phil keeps meeting on the street (years later, he would play a character on the TV series Glee who also had the last name Ryerson, because subtlety was not that show’s strength). Tobolowsky now hosts a popular podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, which consists solely of him sharing stories from his life and work, including many from the set of this movie.

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