When it was released in 1993, Groundhog Day felt a lot like the sort of high-concept comedy, starring a big comedy movie star of the time, along the line of Scrooged or What About Bob or the other comedies Bill Murray starred in around the same time. It was even directed by his Second City pal and fellow Ghostbuster, Harold Ramis. Ramis is credited as co-writer of the film, with Danny Rubin.
Groundhog Day was a massive hit, making over $100 million worldwide. But beyond that, its legend has grown considerably over time, as it’s become a frequent topic of philosophical debate and stoned dorm-room philosophizing.
It is all of those things. But Groundhog Day is also hilarious, featuring one of Murray’s best performances.
Murray plays Phil Conners, a weatherman in Pittsburgh who’s sent to Punxsutawney, the tiny town in Pennsylvania that hosts the annual ceremony in which the groundhog either sees or doesn’t see his shadow. His companions are cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and producer Rita (Andie MacDowell).
Yes, both the weatherman and the groundhog are guys named Phil who predict the weather and having the same name as the groundhog appears to trigger another layer of self-loathing.
But the film, in its first act, also captures some other very true things, from the disdain of big-city media towards small-town folkways, as well as the doom every journalist feels at an assignment they absolutely hate. The best local news folks are great at faking their way through such assignments, but Phil clearly can’t.
What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today!
And then, about 20 minutes in… Phil wakes up and relives the same day. And keeps reliving it, again and again. The film, wisely, never explains the why of the time loop. The movie goes on to milk this premise in every hilarious and ingenious way possible, especially once Phil realizes there are no consequences for any of his actions. He can even die. And he can use the time loop to his own advantage, by learning skills and languages, as well as using trial and error to get in the pants of his woman of choice.
And that’s the film’s genius: Phil starts to use his ability to relive every day to pretend not to be a jackass in order to try to get laid. But then, gradually, he starts to really change.
There are a lot of films in which a cynical hero eventually learns his lesson and grows to be less cynical. Groundhog Day, unlike most films of that kind, actually earns this. And even though the film never explicitly explains what Phil needs to do to escape the loop, the implication seems to be that the universe lets him out once it feels he has earned it.
How long was he in the time loop? That’s been a topic of much disagreement, with the case made for everything from a couple of weeks to 70 or 80 years.
But the premise is so durable that versions of it have been made ever since. Palm Springs adapted the idea for a wedding. The TV show Daybreak, with Taye Diggs, was the Groundhog Day premise adapted into a weekly, 24-like action show. The Netflix show Russian Doll adapted it to New York City, with Natasha Lyonne, with Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” playing the part of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.” And a Broadway musical version of Groundhog Day, from a book by original screenwriter Rubin, finally reached the stage in 2017, lasting on Broadway for 176 performances.
I once saw a job listing for a reporting position with the newspaper in Punxsutawney, and while I imagine the $15,000-a-year salary went quite a long way in that small a town, I didn’t want to run the risk of getting caught in a time loop.
Groundhog Day is streaming on AMC+.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.