Thu
Feb 2 2012 9:00am

Groundhog Day Is Worth Revisiting, Wouldn’t You Say?

Groundhog Day

What day is it, again?

Groundhog Day, the 1993 Bill Murray time travel movie, is one of those films that stands the test of time politely. It’s not quite a cult film, with devoted fan bases and a lot of tie-in activities, rather it’s a film that’s more quietly respected. You saw it when it came out (most likely), you found it to be entertaining (again, most likely), it left you wondering what you’d do in the same situation, and you kind of left it at that. Groundhog Day isn’t one of those lost gems of pop culture, it’s more of a pleasant memory.

Nearly twenty years later our hunger for sophisticated and fun time travel fiction is as large as ever, and sated far more often than it was in the early 1990s. So with the uniqueness of the premise somewhat dulled, and without the glaze of nostalgia, does a film like Groundhog Day still hold up?

The answer to such a question is a surprising yes. Not surprising in that the answer was yes in the first place, but surprising in how immediately the movie makes this apparent. This is a solidly built film, bursting with character, comedy, and theme. This is high concept storytelling made very personable and engaging.

The story begins with Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Conners, a terribly egotistical ass who always has a snide remark for the world around him. He hates the city he lives in, he hates being assigned to do anything, he hates his cameraman (played by Chris Elliott, who doesn’t really give the viewer a reason to not hate him), and he thinks his show’s new producer Rita is a total rube.

Groundhog Day

The crew is headed to Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania to film the Groundhog Day celebrations. (For those unaware, Punxsatawney is actually the mecca — as far as meccas go — of groundhog-related weather-predicting events. The town gears up for this every year.) Phil sees little point in celebrating a holiday that he sees as geared towards rednecks and grumbles his way through the entire celebration.

It would be a pretty dour film if it was just us watching an asshole getting forced through his life, but it’s not a dour film at all, mostly due to the setting of Punxsatawney itself. Bill Murray’s character can barely take a step without a colorful townsperson being shot at him, the most obnoxious of which is Ned Ryerson, an insurance salesman who immediately invades Phil’s personal space, is constantly touching him inappropriately, and throws catchphrases at him at a rapid-fire pace. Stephen Tobolowsky plays this role to the absolute hilt, delivering a tour-de-force of memorable character acting in less than two minutes. Watching this for the first time I had the same reaction Phil does in the film, watching this again just leaves me astounded at how precisely calculated Tobolowsky’s performance is.

Groundhog Day

Ned is just the first of many residents that Phil (and the viewer) will get to know, and here is where the movie really starts getting clever. At first glance we’re just getting a series of gags and bits designed to tweak at Bill Murray’s character, little realizing that we’re actually getting a deeply colorful impression of the town itself. This turns out to be critically central to the plot, and key to the emotional pay-off of the entire film. Punxsatawney itself rivals Phil as the most important character in the movie.

And Phil will explore this town exhaustively, from the B&B staff, to the psychiatrist, to the town’s top-hatted leaders, to the bums in the bowling alley, to Nancy, to the piano teacher, to Dora, to Ned, to the homeless guy he always passes…onward and onward. Nearly every person he meets ends up figuring into his journey.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day

It’s interesting to watch Groundhog Day again while knowing the broad phases that Bill Murray is going to go through. He’s disbelieving at first and takes a logical approach, trying to reason his problem out, then seeking professional help from both a neurosurgeon (Harold “Egon” Ramis in a cameo) and the town’s awful therapist, a man who can’t stop shaking with nervousness even when he appears to be speaking calmly.

Around his fourth run-through of Groundhog Day, he starts having fun with his predicament. He eats through an entire table piled with breakfast, punches Ned because he can, times a perfect robbery of an armored car, and goes on a drunken bender with a couple of guys from the bowling alley. A bender which ends with Phil driving them on to the railroad tracks and facing down an oncoming train. (“I think they’re going to swerve FIRST,” he slurs while driving towards the train.)

Groundhog Day

He continues to toy with his environment, spinning off scores of alternate timelines as his loop continues. He soon steps up his game and starts seducing women in town, learning about their lives on a first pass, then hitting on them in a latter loop with that foreknowledge. It’s almost too easy for him.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day

So easy, in fact, that he eventually turns his sights on Rita, Andie MacDowell’s character. At first, Phil desires her because she consistently refuses to warm to him like other women he’s picked up in town; she’s the last person not interested in him. He ends up having to run through a day with her countless times, learning more about her each time, until a bond genuinely forms. (It actually turns into a bit of a parable for dating in general. i.e. the more you respect the other party as a fellow human being, the more successful the bond formed through the date.)

The movie falters a little here, mainly due to how thinly sketched MacDowell’s character is. At one point Phil straight up asks her what she’s looking for in a man and she basically combines the stereotypes of a romance novel model and a southern gentleman without a trace of humor or insistence. She seems to have no actual real life basis for what she wants and later admits she’s just “going with the flow.” Since she has no specific desire, it’s difficult to believe that Phil’s attracted to her in any way aside from his need to prove that he can do anything. (As long as there are no consequences.)

The film reverts back to Phil’s narcissism at this point, though, allowing him to get really close to bedding Rita through a very fine-tuned approach, but never close enough. Every variation he tries always ends with him getting slapped.

It’s then that he decides that he’s had his fun, he’s spent a minimum of 40 days (probably longer) in this loop, so he proceeds to kill himself and the groundhog in hopes that it will break the cycle.

Groundhog Day

The first attempt doesn’t work, he just wakes up back in bed, so he immediately tries again.

Groundhog Day

And again.

Groundhog Day

When the montage of death is over, he reveals that he’s been at this for at least 6 months, probably more. This is when he actually begins to make headway towards a solution. He convinces Rita during one loop that he’s actually trapped in time, so she starts watching him “like a science experiment.” This equal fascination between the two, this easy give-and-take, actually succeeds in getting Rita to care for him and Phil, for the first time, acts genuinely noble towards her and doesn’t take advantage of the situation. In terms of his personal maturity, Phil has already run through every thing he’s had the desire to do, leading him to seriously consider the kind of person he wants to be and the kind of life he really wants to live. He sees a kind and goodhearted person in Rita and he is astounded that someone like that could, possibly, see the same in him. The quiet transformation is very affecting. Bill Murray pulls off a hell of a performance here, completely selling their relationship to the viewer.

Groundhog Day

But still, he wakes up back at the beginning.

However, he’s not defeated this time. If she could see a good person in him then, he now knows, it’s probably there. He lives his life in this regard as he continues to loop through the same day. He cares for the homeless resident (to no avail, but he keeps trying), he quits phoning it in during his broadcast, he works on personal skills he’s always wanted to develop. Slowly, ever so slowly, he constructs a timeline in his head of where in Punxsatawney and when someone like him is urgently needed.

We continue looping with Phil until finally we see the fruits of this growth collected into a single day. He saves a kid falling from a tree, he fixes a flat tire almost before the driver knows it’s gone flat, he saves the mayor from choking on steak, he convinces a young couple to go ahead with their marriage, and he plays some lively piano for the townspeople at a party. He even makes creepy, creepy Ned Ryerson happy.

Groundhog Day

This is, of course, the key that finally unlocks Phil from the Groundhog Day time loop. He’s spent a lot of time figuring out how to fulfill his own desires, but it’s not until he begins addressing the desires of the people around him, including Rita, that he’s seen fit to be released. The townspeople who assaulted him in the beginning with various bits and gags? He had to step outside of himself and see them as real people, and he had to grow into this behavior genuinely, in order to continue with his own life. Because before Groundhog Day, continuing with his own life was a bitter proposition for all involved.

The lesson is an obvious one by the end of the film, but it’s amazing to see how Groundhog Day gets there. The structure of the movie, the use of its characters and settings, seem haphazard but betray a meticulousness upon repeat viewings. Everything is foreshadowed (even the solution, in the form of a family crest with the word “Unselfishness” hanging in the B&B in the beginning of the film) and nothing is wasted. This is a tightly woven presentation. A time travel movie that, oddly enough, wastes no time in telling its story. Further, it manages to be a primarily comic vehicle that realistically portrays the emotional toll someone caught in a time loop would suffer through. Phil goes through very distinct stages of grief, and acts out in ways that the viewer could see themselves acting were they caught in such a unique situation. There isn’t a lick of science in this film, no reason given for the loop, it’s just there and because the character drama and ensemble acting within it is so strong, you simply accept it.

As far as nostalgia trips go, Groundhog Day is definitely worth watching again. The quality you recall remains in the film and Bill Murray is relentlessly funny. I can’t recall another film of his where he lands so many good lines.

But this being Groundhog Day and all, you already knew that, didn’t you?

 

Check out Tor.com’s other Groundhog Day-related items from today:


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and often revisits days. Except Miracle Day. Ugh.

27 comments
Pietro
1. Pietro
Groundhog day is a favorite of both me and my wife, its a great movie and a great story.
Chris Long
2. radynski
I must have seen this movie 40+ times. I'm astounded at how well it holds up after so many viewings. It still makes me laugh every time. I consider it to be one of the best comedy movies of all time because of that.
Rob Munnelly
3. RobMRobM
One kind of funny story. We make use of our Library's extensive collection of videos. I recommended GD for my pre-teen son, he watched it and loved. After we returned it at the front desk, we went into the movie section and asked whether the Library had GD so that he could watch it. He made the same comment for the next few weeks before the joke got old.
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
By the way, the groundhog saw his shadow so we have six more weeks of winter. Thought you'd all want to know.

Rob
Pietro
5. Patricia Mathews
Not in New Mexico, he didn't. I don't look to a national back-east groundhog to predict the local weather!

Yes, Groundhog Day has a good premise well-developed, and it came to me reading your review that Dante would have known precisely where Phil was and why. Even though it didn't occur to him back in the fourteenth century to add time loops to the Purgatorio - I think he would have loved the concept!
Matthew B
6. MatthewB
One of those movies that i will stop and watch whenever i catch sight of it. It's just brilliant.
Cassandra Cookson
7. cass
I show this movie in my survey philosophy class as an example of both the examined life and Plato's catagories of love (philia, eros, and agape). The students still laugh, but get the point. A surprising number of the younger ones have never seen it before. I thought it was everywhere on cable by now.

Cassandra
Pietro
8. Edd
Agreed, this is a fine flick I've seen many times. The original script has an interesting bit that didn't make the cut: once he figures out he's going through the same day again and again, Phil starts to read the books in one bookshthe B&B, one page a day. We return to this scene on occasion, seeing him progress through literally thousands upon thousands of pages.
Anthony Pero
10. anthonypero
As an added bonus, this movie directly led to the greatest line in the entire StarGate Franchise:

"In the middle of my backswing?!?!"
Anthony Pero
11. anthonypero
I've often argued with my friends about how long the loop lasted. Bottom line, for him to play the piano the way he did at the party, and for him obviously not knowing the first thing... at least 10 years. If he was amazingly, naturally gifted. More like 20 years probably.
Scott Silver
12. hihosilver28
So @RobMRobM,
Winter is Coming. Or would that just be Winter is Staying? Hard to juxtapose the Starks with Groundhog Day.

I also love the film, it really is more than the sum of its parts, and all the parts are excellent.
john mullen
13. johntheirishmongol
This is a brilliant premise followed through with good writing and a wonderful performance by Bill Murray. It is a story about someone who is an adult but has never really matured, and he does grow up. I think the romance is secondary to that.

@8 I think the piano lessons accomplish the same purpose as the book reading, which is why it was cut. Think of the years of lessons and practice to go from novice to expert. There were also language lessons that showed the length of time. It is great because you aren't explicitly told how long it takes, just gather the impression of a very long time.
Benji Cat
14. benjicat
It might take less objective time than you would expect to become an expert since he could conceivably spend all day, every day devoted to that pursuit without consequence.
Chris Lough
15. TorChris
@9. So. great. I feel nitpicky about the exact total, of course, because it's the internet*, but it's great to have all of the evidence laid out.

*My main nitpick is that the article assumes he masters one skill then moves on to the next when it's more likely that he stacks his learning. A couple hours learning French, a couple hours learning how to ice sculpt, a couple hours at piano class, etc. can make for one day.

Another thing I didn't touch on above is the biological component of the time loop. He's reset, biologically, every day but retains all memory and experience. I find that separation fascinating. Is he receiving this collected information from an outside source, downloaded anew every morning, or does his brain continue to age in a linear fashion? Both are fun to think about.
Aeria Lynn
16. aeria_lynn
@RobMRobM

You mean we'll have six weeks of winter coming up.

(2012, the year of no winter...so far...)
Rob Munnelly
17. RobMRobM
@16 - I'm with you on your clarification. Six more weeks of whatever we've been getting that purports to be winter.

Parts of my state (Massachusetts) got hit hard by the Halloween snow storm (up to 2 feet in some places) but I got less than 2 inches and it was melted by 10 a.m. No snow at all in Nov. or December. Two weeks ago, got less than 2 inches on two days and 3 inches on another day - and that's it. On balance, nicest winter season in my memory (and I'm an old dude). I played golf in late November and early December and went biking with my kids last weekend. It hit 55 F yesterday. Wow.

Rob
Pietro
18. LM
I am not actually sure if I have seen this entire movie, but I always assumed it was a movie I would not like (it sounded like a kind of frustrating slap stick-y comedy, and time travel is hit or miss with me)...parts of it sound vaguely familiar so it's possible I saw it when young, but most of the themes went over my head.

However, Cause and Effect is one of my very favorite Star Trek episodes, so perhaps I should give it a chance :)

Oh, and TorChris @15 - yes, I was thinking that same thing!!!
Jenny Thrash
19. Sihaya
The movie actually does better removed from its time frame. When I first watched it, I was predisposede to the idea that Bill Murray would be the cad from "Scrooged," that most of the eccentric townespeople would do the eccentric shtick that they've done for years, that Andie McDowell would be as brittle as an ice sculpture. Enough years have gotten me away from what these characters are in any similar movies and focused on who they are in this one, I think.
Marcus W
20. toryx
aeria_lynn @ 16:

That's what I was going to say.

Our biggest snowfall thus far was the halloween weekend. It got up into the 50's yesterday (and I'm further north from Robb). Pretty rotten weather. The worst part is how it keeps icing up, raining, and then turning the whole world into mud. Not fun for walking the dog.

Anyway, back on topic...

I'm not a fan of Bill Murray, but this is one movie that I genuinely enjoyed him in. Unfortunately, even it's charm wasn't enough to make me like Andie MacDowell. She's always the weakest link of an otherwise good film.

I love that now Groundhog Day is actually a synonym for repeat but I confess I'm a little creeped out that it's almost been 20 years since the movie came out. Wow, how time flies when you're not reliving the same day over and over again.
Anthony Pero
21. anthonypero
It's actually been 19 years...maybe you were caught in a time loop for a year? ;)
Pietro
22. DRickard
C'mon folks... twenty comments into the thread & no-body's posted a duplicate comment yet? What kind of Groundhod Dayers are you?
Jenny Thrash
23. Sihaya
DRickard, check back tomorrow/this morning. I'm sure somebody will do/did it.
Risha Jorgensen
24. RishaBree
If nothing else (and that's a big if, because it's a wonderful movie), you can see how lasting an effect it has had by turning on any scifi or fantasy tv show. Every show eventually has to do a Groundhog Day episode. (Warning: TV Tropes.) Of course similar concepts were played with before, but this exact plot is the one that gets adapted over and over. It basically created its own mini-genre.
Pietro
25. antares
"This is my favorite film. I've sent it over a hundred times."

Had _Groundhog Day_ on tape before the DVD came out. Watched it every week for years.

When Phil looks out the window on his second day in Puxsatawney, he says, "What the Hell?" He doesn't know it then, but he isn't swearing.

I always thought the romance seemed tacked on. The story is about Phil's evolution from self-centered to other-centered.
Chin Bawambi
26. bawambi
Toryx I couldn't agree more about Andy McDowell. The thing that sticks in my craw most is why would the new other oriented Phil be interested in the vapid Rita at all. Her performance is so underwhelming its cringeworthy.
Pietro
27. gritchie
Can't believe nobody else has mentioned this... Groundhog Day was filmed in Woodstock IL, not Punxsatawney. :-(

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