A few days ago, it was Groundhog Day. Again. On February 2, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, America’s official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, looked at his shadow and declared that six more weeks of winter were on the way. Even the President was watching. To mark the occasion he tweeted about Obamacare: “#PunxsutawneyPhil says there’s more winter ahead — make sure you get covered.”
The film which made this annual event famous is now 21 years old, but it is one of those rare films which will endure. Not that critics thought so when it was released in 1993. The review were favourable, but lukewarm. It was not even nominated for an Oscar. The Washington Post’s reviewer wrote: “[it] will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress”.
But in 2006, it was. Nowadays, most film lists include it in their top 100 of all time. The New York Times’s favourite intellectual, Professor Stanley Fish, describes it as one of the ten best American films ever. A book has been written about it.
The plot has become so well known that “groundhog day” has become synonymous with a boring and futile daily grind. Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors has to file a report on the annual February 2 Groundhog Day festival in rural western Pennsylvania. Afterwards, he and his producer Rita and cameraman Larry are trapped there by a snowstorm and have to stay overnight. When Phil’s clock radio starts blaring out Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” at 6am, he finds that it is February 2 all over again. From then on, no matter what he does during the day, he wakes up on the same February 2.
We don’t know how many times this happens – perhaps many thousands, because by the end of the film he has become a virtuoso pianist and a skilled ice sculptor and can recite the life story of everyone in Punxsutawney.
At first Phil is horrified at his fate. Doctors can’t help. He tries casual sex and seduces a local girl, which doesn’t help either. Then he tries to kill himself – many times, in ever more entertaining ways.
But he always wakes up on the same February 2.
Slowly he realises that he doesn’t love anyone but himself. As Rita tells him, egocentricity is his defining characteristic. He begins to take an interest in the townsfolk instead of despising them. He tries to save the life of an old hobo. He tries to make Rita fall in love with him. This is his redemption. When he becomes a man who is capable of really loving, he wakes up on February 3. In the final scene, he runs down the street in the freshly-fallen snow holding hands with Rita.
What accounts for Groundhog Day’s success? The director, Harold Ramis, is an established writer, producer and director of Hollywood comedies. But none of them rise to the heights of Groundhog Day. Bill Murray, who plays Phil, is funny, but not inspired. Andie MacDowell, who plays Rita, his love interest, is a little too ingenuous for a TV producer. The minor characters, especially the appallingly friendly life insurance salesman, are hilarious, but not original. The dialogue is witty but not memorable.
As a moral fable, too, it’s pretty lightweight. The sign of his redemption from February 2 is that he becomes Rita’s Prince Charming and she likes him enough to sleep with him. I would have thought that a genuine moral recovery would have involved a respectful courtship and marriage.
However, Groundhog Day is one of those miraculous films which are far more than the sum of their parts. None of its shortcomings takes the gloss off a film that has a universal and enduring message: the radiance of the moment, the hidden beauty of Now, the transcendent importance of apparent futility. Watching it is an experience that invites metaphysical, even theological, reflection. But at the same time, it’s also an unpretentious, goofy romantic comedy.
On one level, Groundhog Day is a celebration of small town America, very much like Frank Capra’s films of the 30s and 40s, especially It’s a Wonderful Life. At the end, Phil even hints that he’d like to settle down in Punxsutawney with Rita.
There are few novels or films that highlight the importance of everyday lives. In fact, ever since the Romantic era, most writers have celebrated Promethean heroes who spurn conventions and have despised “the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. They have despised the “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” in suburbia and the narrowness small towns. Films and novels about suburban life tended to depict it as boring, hypocritical and sanctimonious. Groundhog Day suggests that those small town rituals enrich life.
As Phil says in the last of his hilarious attempts to sum up Groundhog Day for viewers back in Pittsburgh:
“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.”
On another level, it’s a fable about moral redemption. Phil begins the film as a 24-caret jerk and ends it as a thoughtful, generous, selfless do-gooder. Step by step change is possible; we are not prisoners of our selfishness. The climax of the film is the town’s Groundhog Day dinner dance when all the eccentric characters in Punxsutawney tell Rita that their lives have been changed by Phil’s generosity. Film critic Roger Ebert summed it up well: “Just because we’re born as SOBs doesn’t mean we have to live that way.”
But most original of all, without being an art-house movie, Groundhog Day celebrates the beauty of the small epiphanies of everyday life. “Maybe it’s not a curse; it just depends on how you look at it,” Rita tells Phil when he expresses his despair at the endless repetition of February 2. It all depends on the love with which the chores of each day are filled. The waitress who asks Phil if he’d like blueberry pancakes has done this every day of Phil’s February 2 Purgatory, but even her job has a cosmic dimension. From time to time we all feel that we are caged hamsters turning a wheel – but Groundhog Day suggests that those revolutions can be transformed into love.
Paradoxically, the very craft of making a movie proves this. The actor who played Ned Ryerson, the thoroughly obnoxious life insurance salesman, was asked about his role not long ago. He responded:
Whenever people ask me about Groundhog Day, they ask, “What was it like shooting the same scene over, and over, and over again?” But when you do a movie, you always are shooting the same scenes over and over again.
And this over and over again became the small miracle which is Groundhog Day.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.