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“Groundhog Day” Perfectly Balances Dark and Light

February 2, 2022


Harold Ramis’ 1993 comedic classic Groundhog Day invites us to imagine living the same day on a seemingly endless loop. What would we do differently if we could relive today again tomorrow? How would we change if everyone and everything around us remained the same?

Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray in perhaps his most iconic role—a part first refused by Tom Hanks and then Michael Keaton. Few of us could now imagine the character of Phil Connors as anyone other than Murray; the film turned him into a quirky leading-man megastar. 

Murray took the part just as his real-life marriage was falling apart, and things were tense during production between him and his old friend Ramis. At the heart of the pair’s infamous falling out on the set of Groundhog Day was whether the script should play out as a dark philosophical exploration (Murray’s view) or as a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy (Ramis’ view). In the end, Groundhog Day is both; it is routinely examined alongside the greatest spiritually significant cinematic masterpieces, while also placing on the top shelf of great comedies. This rare artistic balance is precisely why we are still talking about the film and Murray’s dark-yet-charming performance almost thirty years later.

When co-writer Danny Rubin first conceived the idea of what would become Groundhog Day, he was reading Ann Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and thinking about the complications of living forever on earth. Rubin also had in mind William Dean Howells’ 1892 novel Christmas Every Day, and after the film’s release, there was no end to speculation about what other novels and films may have been unacknowledged sources of inspiration. All for good reason. Going as far back as Herodotus or the biblical book of Judges, people have considered redemption and glory in the context of a cyclical understanding of existence. In Christ, the cycle of brokenness ends; but most baptized Christians, let alone the rest of humanity, need time to figure it out. When we meet Phil Connors, he does not yet realize he is just like everyone else—a sinner called to be a saint—but eventually he learns.

And how long does it take?

Ramis has stated that he originally imagined a 10,000-year timeframe for Phil’s growth into a decent man on a frigid February day in Pennsylvania. He later reconsidered, saying that the total transformation of a man’s character would probably be achievable over the course of ten to twelve years instead, before later saying it was probably more like eight and a half years and some change. But despite Ramis’ claims, one intrepid internet film nerd has deduced from various clues in the film that the total duration of Phil’s repetition of February 2 amounts to 12,395 days, or thirty-three years and three-hundred fifty days. A Christian can’t help but wonder: Coincidence?

Before we decide the significance of Phil’s repeated days in Punxsutawney, we need to remember the stages of his journey in the film.

It is precisely in the midst of our monotony where the divergent paths of life and death stand open before us to choose.

Phil is a Pittsburgh weatherman who treats his co-workers like an inferior class and who believes he is heading to bigger and better things. But he is also alone. Significant to this detail, when Phil wakes up in his cozy bed and breakfast before heading out to report on the groundhog’s shadow, he hears the Sonny and Cher song “I Got You, Babe” for the first of thousands of times. He then runs into his old schoolmate “Needlenose” Ned Ryerson, memorably depicted by Stephen Tobolowsky—again, for the first of many, many times—and he dismisses him with complete disdain. Meanwhile, Phil is secretly smitten with his kind and beautiful producer, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell

Phil halfheartedly broadcasts the groundhog ceremony, finds himself snowed in and unable to return to the big city, falls asleep, and wakes up to February 2 a second time. And then a third, and then a fourth, and so on. Phil initially tries to figure out the problem before accepting his fate—a perpetual today, which he quickly understands to be “no tomorrow.” Embracing a world “without consequences,” he declares, “I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore,” and he tells Rita, “I don’t worry about anything anymore,” before embarking on presumably years of abusive and self-destructive behavior. Murray’s wry style is on full display here as he stuffs his face with cake, joyrides on a railroad track, and lives out his western movie fantasies by dressing up like Bronco Billy. It’s all as funny as Ramis wanted it to be, and as dark as Murray could make it.

Tiring of his sin, as many people who live long enough eventually do, Phil shifts gears to wooing Rita. Here Murray employs the laconic charm he perfected in Ghostbusters, as Phil plays the part of Rita’s perfect man, learning more about her each day, and superficially pleasing her, but ultimately failing every time to get her into bed. Rita tells Phil, “You’ll never love anyone but yourself.” He replies, “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.” Then follows despair, which leads to hilarious, unsuccessful suicide attempts, for which Murray combines the depressive nature of his John Winger character from the first part of Stripes with his wild Carl Spackler character from Caddyshack. It is here that the film reaches its most theologically interesting point.

Forced to live the same day seemingly forever, Phil obtains a kind of omniscience over everyone and everything in his world. He has the power to do whatever he likes, except to die, leading him to declare frankly, “I’m a god.” Rita, thinking Phil is just full of himself again, snaps back, “You’re not a god. You can take my word for it. This is twelve years of Catholic school talking.”

Rita’s words prove true; but more importantly, her own virtue suddenly comes into focus for Phil as a reminder of his own very human deficit of holiness and a challenge to pursue it. Phil discovers that he cannot save an old homeless man from dying, no matter how many ways he tries to play out the scenario over many days. He is no universal savior, and he has no power to disrupt providence. But he can save some people—a boy falling from a tree, a man choking in a restaurant—and he can make other people’s lives better. Because the recipients of his charity have no memory of Phil or his good work the next time they see him, his acts are truly selfless, and he finds joy in doing them for their own sake. Throughout these scenes, Murray radiates genuine joy, and a palpable sensitivity for human dignity. He likes himself, and he likes his neighbors even more.

With no expectation of physical intimacy, a relationship, marriage, or even impressing Rita in a lasting way, Phil is finally able to say to her, “I’m happy now, because I love you.” The next morning, “I Got You, Babe” is playing again on the radio, but it is February 3. Phil is no longer alone, and we are left wondering about the intended theological meaning of Phil’s repetition of the same day for many years.

If Groundhog Day is meant to imply reincarnation, for example, then why is Phil always himself—the same man—every single time, never progressing or regressing through other species as reward or punishment? Nor is Phil the beneficiary or the victim of karma. His experience of February 2 gets better and worse only by his own choices, and everything else stays the same. Phil does not forget who he is or what has happened on all the previous Groundhog Days, but rather he adapts and changes according to his experiences. Phil may, therefore, be trapped in the same day in one sense, but in another way, Phil’s experience is no different from ours. Most days are just about the same in our lives too, even as the calendar changes. It is precisely in the midst of our monotony where the divergent paths of life and death stand open before us to choose.

And yet, Groundhog Day is not the story of the victory of a Nietzschean superman over banality. In the end, Phil’s escape from reliving the same day comes not from the triumph of his own will, which was the problem to begin with, but rather with the conformity of his will to a purpose that subordinates him to that power and to the benefit of other creatures. Phil must choose the good, but such a choice is a response to revelation, not his own righteous invention. When February 2 finally becomes February 3, Phil receives a gift, not a reward.

We are left, therefore, to understand Groundhog Day through the lens of divine grace. Phil’s transformation, like ours, is God’s doing. Moreover, Phil’s transformation is somewhat inevitable. If he cannot die, then he must change. If there is only one reality, then his miserable experience of it is only explicable by his own obstinacy. And while Christians cannot assert the universality or certainty of salvation, C.S. Lewis reminds us that “the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Or as the Catechism says, hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (CCC 1033).

Phil’s final choice in favor of blessedness is on display in a moment of peaceful delight, with Murray at his acting best, after a loving but chaste night with Rita in the final sequence of the film. The place of misery becomes the place of love, and Phil even suggests they might stay in Punxsutawney, but (with a wry and telling nod to his nature) “we’ll rent, first.” The day finally changes, but now, who cares if it ever will again?

As Phil and Rita jump over the closed gate outside their hotel, we are left to consider that maybe the final message of Groundhog Day is how hell can become heaven. And in Murray’s performance, we see the face of hope for our own redemption as we slog through the difficulties of life.

Come back to Groundhog Day again and again for a good dose of grace.