Why Groundhog Day Still Matters

It's Groundhog Day, so we're looking at the film again. And again. And again. And so on.

It's Groundhog Day again, so I thought it might be a good time to dissect Groundhog Day, the movie starring Bill Murray. For years now, Groundhog Day has remained my all-time favorite movie. Yes, it€™s hilarious. Yes, it€™s clever. Yes, it€™s romantic. But there€™s so much more that most people don€™t see. On the surface, it appears to be just another €œTwilight Zone€ episode with a moral tagged at the end: a curmudgeon is trapped in the same day over and over again and is forced to overcome personal adversity to win the heart of his true love. But screenwriter Danny Rubin is a practicing Buddhist, and there are spiritual layers of his belief brilliantly interwoven throughout this seemingly simple fable. So let's peel back the layers of why it€™s become a modern classic in the past 20 years. Being obsessive-compulsive, I'm always thinking about the same things, and who hasn't dwelled on what could have been if given a second chance, such as the disastrous date Murray's sardonic weatherman Phil Connors suffers during the film's turning point? The movie fantasizes this marvelous idea: seeing all the second and third and 16th chances he has and how making simple changes to his behavior greatly impacts the world around him. Nothing in the Groundhog Day in Groundhog Day changes. Nothing. The snowstorm still comes, the television reporters are still stuck, the kid still falls out of the tree, the old women get that flat in the car, and Larry still says, "We better get moving if we want to stay ahead of the weather." The only thing that changes in the entire day is Phil Connors himself. By adjusting what he says and does, he alters the world around him, for better or worse. It's a powerful concept that is greatly overlooked and simply an inspiring message to learn. More than just a metaphor for life, Groundhog Day teaches us that we all have the power to change€”and even create€”our environment. In the beginning of the movie, Phil considers Punxsutawney a hellhole, and by the end, it has become his heaven. God literally steps in to interfere with Phil's self-defeating plans. He stops his life from continuing until Phil gets the day right. He tries everything: reckless abandonment, money, lust, and even suicide at one point to get through the day and onto the next, but none of it works. He isn't allowed to continue his life until he becomes a better person€”a lesson we can all benefit from. The only thing that saves Phil is being a man, facing his fears, and changing himself, and thus his world, for the better. In truth, the only thing that saves him is himself.
This movie perfectly characterizes the stages of overcoming misfortune. Being depressed once myself, I can easily relate to this. At one point, he tells love interest Rita, played to sweet perfection by Andie MacDowell, "I'll give you a weather prediction: It's going to be cold, it's going to be gray, and it's going to last you the rest of your life." He, of course, isn't really talking about the weather but giving an ideal description of depression. Phil goes through the classic motions after a tragedy in the same order most people experience (and many psychologists report): denial, fear, anger, bargaining, despair€”until he ultimately reaches acceptance. Only then is he able to solve his problem, and consequently fix his life, by coming to terms with himself and, as crazy as it was, his world. Similar to a recovering alcoholic, he can only turn his life around for the better once he accepts the fact that he has a problem in the first place. Only then can he seek help. In Groundhog Day, Phil seeks the help inside himself. Most Murray vehicles, whether it's Meatballs, Stripes, or one of my favorites, Ghostbusters, feature sarcasm as the choice of humor. It makes sense, because he's a natural at it. But in Groundhog Day, Murray's patented sarcasm doesn't come to his rescue this time. In the beginning of the film, Phil is constantly cracking wiseass comments at the world; in other words, life is the butt of his jokes. But as the film progresses, we see his world turned upside down. Life makes him the butt of the joke. Phil (and Bill?) eventually learns that his sarcastic approach won't help him out of his predicament. We see sarcasm slowly put to death towards the film's climax. Then of course, there's the love story. Besides being genuinely moving and featuring great chemistry between Murray and MacDowell, another reason why I love it so much is because of its realism. If you take away the time-warp element, what happens between these two would happen in real life. Based on my experience with women and stories from my friends, the more you try to impress a girl by spending lots of money and going out of your way for her, the less she seems interested. It comes off as needy and trying too hard, and nothing is less attractive than someone who can't live without someone else. And in the beginning, we see that happen with Phil. At first, their relationship has some natural spark, but eventually, it becomes strained as Phil tries to force the "right" situations into their dates: if he only says the right thing (the same things he was saying before that won her over), if he only lands next to her in the snow in exactly the right spot, if he only does the perfect thing or memorizes her likes and dislikes, etc. He even keeps a list: "No white chocolate, no fudge." But of course, he's doomed for failure, because bending over backwards to make someone interested in you never works. You can't force love. It has to happen for real.
So what does Phil do? He does what everyone should. Instead of concentrating on Rita and their potential relationship, he works on himself. He learns to play piano (Rita did say she wanted a guy who could play an instrument), does favors around town (helping a group of elderly friends by jacking up their car when it gets a flat, catching the boy in the tree before he hits the ground, etc.), and, probably most moving of all, takes care of the old man, even though he knows he ultimately can't save his life. No matter what he does€”no matter how much money or food he gives him€”the old man will die. And there is a frustration in that. Phil isn't God, after all (not even "a god," as he once attests). But there is also a powerful freedom in letting go, and Phil does so. Rita notices all these changes in Phil and is naturally attracted to him, even asking him out€”simply because of who he is, or who he became, not because he was going crazy trying to get her to like him. So is it any surprise when she eventually bids on a date with Phil at the bachelor auction for 339 dollars and 88 cents€”the entire contents of her pocketbook€”on a man who only a day before, she was ready to strangle? Also notice that on the last night they spend together in the movie, when Murray declares his love and says, "I love you," the movie doesn't cheat, and she doesn't respond with, "I love you, too," because to her, it has still only been one day. Even though he has had literally years of experience getting to know her by repeating the same day over and over again, she's only known him for the same 24 hours. (There's a reason why the filmmakers chose the closing song, as Nat "King" Cole sings, "It's almost like being in love.") Instead, she says, "I think I'm happy, too." In other words, even though it was soon, it still felt right to her, and he was finally able to make her happy€”the crux of a good foundation to any relationship. At last, she saw potential in Phil as her lover. "Why do you love this movie so much?" people sometimes ask me. "Because life is Groundhog Day," I respond. On my way to work, I know when I pass a certain deli sign before Madison Avenue, the light will change green. I know when I cross Madison, I'm probably going to pass the same happy couple kissing each other goodbye. And I know I will still see the same strangers pass on their way to work. We know our faces but not our names. "It's Groundhog Day," I tell myself. Think about it. Haven't you experienced that odd sense of déjà vu by repeating the same tired routine every day? You get up at the same time each morning, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, sit in traffic, make the same business calls, talk to the same people, etc. This movie teaches us that we all have the potential to live a meaningless Groundhog Day existence. But, more importantly, we also have the power to change it. Click "next" below to read our now legendary article - "Just How Many Days Does Bill Murray Really Spend Stuck Reliving Groundhog Day".
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Michael Perone has written for The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City Paper, The Island Ear (now titled Long Island Press), and The Long Island Voice, a short-lived spinoff of The Village Voice. He currently works as an Editor in Manhattan. And he still thinks Michael Keaton was the best Batman.