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Groundhog Day (or How an A-Hole Learned to Be Happy)

It’s been twenty-five years since “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, premiered (a fact that I have a hard time accepting; of course, I have a hard time accepting that many things happened decades ago).  “Groundhog Day” is one of my favorite comedies, with “Airplane,” a far different movie, its only competition for the top spot.  While “Airplane” has far more jokes and is arguably funnier, “Groundhog Day” holds it own for me due to its heart, sincerity and a message that, to this day, continues to evolve.

When “Groundhog Day” debuted on February 2, 1993, it received mostly favorable reviews, although none of them were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. For instance, the reviewer for the Washington Post wrote that, while the film was one of Bill Murray’s better vehicles, it “will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress.” 

The movie did fairly well at the box office, becoming the #13 top grossing movie of 1993 and earning approximately $800k more than “Grumpy Old Men.” Some comedies that made more money that year included “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Free Willy.” For my money, “Groundhog Day” blows the rest of them away. 

Yes, “Groundhog Day” was successful, but nothing in its success in 1993 indicated that the movie would become an American classic.

And a classic it is.  Over the past twenty-years, “Groundhog Day” has been recognized by both critical and fan polls as being one of the best comedies of all time. The Writer’s Guild of America ranks the screenplay #27 on its list of “101 Greatest Screenplays of all Time.”  The film was listed #32 on Bravo’s 100 Funniest Comedies of All Time. And in 2006, the National Film Preservation Board selected the film for preservation in the Library of Congress, demonstrating that film reviewers, even well respected ones for the Washington Post, are often no better prognosticators than groundhogs are.

It’s clear that “Groundhog Day,” much like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” has become more popular and appreciated over the years and, like those movies, it conveys a message that, due to great acting and writing, hits home with viewers.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, stop reading, download the movie (or buy a BlueRay/DVD) and watch it.  Seriously.  This blog will still be here when you finish.

As a reminder for all those who have seen it (or for those who refuse to take my advice and actually watch the movie), Groundhog Day is about Phil Connors,  a TV weatherman and, pardon my French, an asshole. The character is swarmy, sarcastic, condescending, manipulative and ego-centric (his “defining characteristic” according to Rita, his producer, played by Andie MacDowell). In short, he’s very much like the Bill Murray characters in “Stripes,” “Meatballs,” and the Ghostbusters movies, which is not surprising given that the late, great Harold Ramis wrote all of those movies and co-wrote “Groundhog Day.”  Yes, Phil Connors is the quintessential Bill Murray asshole, but he’s funny and his targets are often silly, stupid characters, so we laugh despite ourselves.  

On February 2nd, Phil, Rita and their cameraman, Larry, attend a Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a town that Phils hates and that is filled with people whom he hates. He covers the event, where the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, sees his shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter. An unforeseen blizzard hits later in the day and traps Phil, Rita and Larry in Punxsutawney for the night. When Phil wakes the next day, he discovers the day is February 2nd again and he is forced to relive the day over and over again, the only person aware that the day is repeating. 

The movie never explains the reason for the supernatural repetition of the day, but it doesn’t need to.  We know that, for some reason and in some way, Phil is being punished for being who he is and acting the way he does.

After days of denial and shock,  Phil decides to take advantage of the situation and to derive as much pleasure as he can. He gathers information about the people of Punxsutawney and the repeating events and, on later days, he uses that information to seduce a local woman and rob an armored car. Phil then tries his now well-honed tactics on Rita by appearing to be her perfect man, the one who shares her favorite drinks, her dreams and her interests.

Rita rejects him. Repeatedly (at least nine times as demonstrated by face slaps shown). 

Following the rejections, Phil becomes despondent and ends up killing himself and Punxsatawny Phil, only to wake up again at 6:00 a.m. on February 2nd.  He kills himself again and again (apparently by being “stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned”) and is reborn each time.

After repeated deaths and rebirths, Phil realizes there is no escape from the day. He informs a disbelieving Rita of his dilemna and, after some effort, is able to convince her.  They spend the day and night together and later that night, Rita notes that she wished to live a thousand lives and perhaps this isn’t a curse. When she starts to fall asleep as they lay in bed platonically, he tells her that he loves her. 

When he wakes, Phil appears to be changed. He starts improving himself by reading and learning piano, ice sculpting and foreign languages. He also become nicer to those around him and starts helping people that he encounters during the day. Phil even tries to save the lives of others, in some cases succeeding and in one tragic case, repeatedly failing. We watch as Phil becomes a better man, still a sarcastic, funny man but one without the mean-spiritedness and self-centeredness that previously defined him.  One day, after seeing this new Phil throughout the day, Rita buys a date with him at a charity auction. After he sculpts a snow bust of her, he tells her he loves her and that he is “happy now.” When Phil wakes the next day, Rita is next to him in bed and it’s February 3rd.  The day, a long day, has ended. The movie ends with Phil proposing that he and Rita stay in Punxsutawney.

At first glance, the movie appears to be a funny romantic comedy, a variation of Beauty and the Beast, where a man escapes a curse only after he becomes a better man and loves someone and is loved in return. It’s also arguably similar to another Bill Murray movie where an asshole becomes a good man as a result of supernatural events:  “Scrooged,” a take-off of “A Christmas Carol.”

However, upon closer inspection, we may discern a deeper message. Phil’s continued reliving of February 2nd is a metaphor for the monotony and repetition of our everyday lives and their routines.  Indeed, the movie makes sure that we see that point, when Phil, over drinks with two men named Gus and Ralph, asks, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Gus responds “that sums it up for me.”

If February 2nd is meant to represent life (with its boring, routine reptitiveness) then Phil’s reward of awakening on February 3rd, the day after, must represent the reward of the afterlife.  The underlying message of “Groundhog Day” therefore would appear to be the same lesson taught by many religions, including Judaism, Christianity,  Buddhism, and Hinduism, which is that, by engaging in selfless service to others and improvement of one’s self, (whether in this life, multiple lives through reincarnation or expiating our sins in purgatory), we will be rewarded with love and bliss in a heaven or nirvana.  In fact, a number of theologians from these various religions have written about how the movie expresses the teachings of their religions.

What if, however, that’s not the message of “Groundhog Day” or at least the entire message?  What if the message is not that, if one engages in self-less service and personal improvement, they will be rewarded with happiness in the afterlife, but rather, that through such service and improvement, one can experience happiness in the boring routine of our everyday lives. (Admittedly, this is a subtle difference, but an important one).

I started seeing this viewpoint recently as a result of a Facebook post a friend posted before my annual viewing of “Groundhog Day.” The post was:

“Ego: When everything falls into place, I will find peace. 

Spiritual: When I find peace, everything will fall into place.”

Throw in happiness in the place of peace, I think the spiritual message describes “Groundhog Day.” If you watch the movie closely, Phil is happy before he ever wins Rita’s love or escape February 2nd.  

It’s the last third of the movie where Phil becomes a better man, and in that portion, there is evidence throughout of his happiness. He’s often shown smiling or with a peaceful look on his face. He smiles as he brings coffee and donuts to Rita and Larry. He clearly enjoys playing the piano and making ice sculptures. When he’s reading a book at the diner, he stops and looks around as if he’s read something beautiful or wonderful that he wants to share with someone. Even when he’s joking at the expense of others or is seemingly arrogant, the jokes are playful showing a serenity of spirit rather than anger or unhappiness that lay under the biting humor he displayed earlier in the movie.. 

The movie does benefit from the fact that Phil Connors is so much like other Bill Murray characters we’ve seen in the past. The audience knows this character; they’ve seen him before many times in other movies. In those movies, there was some character development.  In “Ghostbusters,” for example, Peter Venckaman is less of an asshole at the end of the movie, but not by much. (In fact, in the sequel, Venckman is back to his old ways as a swarmy television host.)   In “Groundhog Day, however, when Phil changes, he shows a sincerity and heart that we’ve never seen the Bill Murrary character show in the earlier movies. Credit goes to Bill Murray’s acting and the screenplay for effectively conveying sincerity and happiness.  

It’s Phil’s speech on the final Groundhog Day that truly shows that he is experiencing happiness and peace within the loop as well as summing up the movie:

“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

The speech alludes to the winter (i.e. the repetition of Groundhog Day) that started when Phil the Groundhog saw his shadow and the blizzard trapped Phil Connors in Punxsatawny. For some time, Phil despaired through this dark and bleak winter. However, once he opened himself up to the Puxatawny people, he found himself at peace and happy, to the point where he “couldn’t imagine a better fate” than the spending time on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney.

Simply put, Phil was happy within the loop itself and this happiness did not depend upon things going his way. Or at least, that’s the lesson that I’m taking from the movie. Other messages are just as valid, if perhaps, not more so. Admittedly, Phil’s awakening on February 3rd with his dream woman in his arms does suggest some importance to a reward outside of Groundhog Day. It would have been very interesting if the movie hadn’t ended on February 3rd, but rather had indicated a reward within the loop itself. Of course, the movie would not have been as popular as it was.

Regardless of the message anyone takes from the movie or whether it supports this belief or that, “Groundhog Day” is a great, witty movie and should be watched multiple times by everyone.  If fact, the movie is much like Phil’s experience in Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day, it gets even better with repetition. 

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