‘Groundhog Day’ is more than a comedy about a dopey weatherman

By David Larson

Raleigh, NC – In my role at a politics-focused newspaper, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to play movie critic. But it’s Groundhog Day… again, and the 1993 movie bearing that name is among my favorites, so I’ll take the liberty just this once.

Image of Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors after kidnapping the groundhog in the movie Groundhog Day.

Or maybe it’s not such a departure from business as usual, as a quick glance around the internet shows that I’m not alone among conservative columnists in my love for the film. Jonah Goldberg, in a National Review cover story titled, “A Movie for All Time,” says the Bill Murray movie will “almost undoubtedly join It’s a Wonderful Life in the pantheon of America’s most uplifting, morally serious, enjoyable, and timeless movies.”

In 2018, free-market think tank the American Enterprise Institute hosted a watch party of the film. On the invitation, it states that “the film has long been a source of unexpected wisdom for AEI scholars,” adding a quote from Charles Murray, saying, “You could learn the same truths by studying Aristotle’s ‘Ethics’ carefully, but watching ‘Groundhog Day’ repeatedly is a lot more fun.” In a Wall Street Journal article laying out his “Advice for a Happy Life,” his top three tips were, “Consider marrying young. Be wary of grand passions. Watch ‘Groundhog Day’ (again).”

In Goldberg’s article on the movie, he talks about the hundreds of emails he’s received by pastors, professors, theologians, and various wise men and women telling him how the movie is their go-to for explaining certain facts of life to those forced to listen to them. He also details how at a “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” film series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, so many of the 35 assembled gurus wanted to be the one to opine on “Groundhog Day” that a fierce struggle, or as fierce as monks and academics can muster, broke out.

Others, somehow, don’t see the brilliance and are even annoyed by the movie’s repetitious nature. It may just be one of those movies you either love or hate (or think is just okay, to paraphrase comedian Mitch Hedberg). So to explain to the haters and just-okay thinkers why this movie gets so much attention from certain corners, I’ll give a brief window into my own love for the film. Don’t worry; I won’t give a full summary, so you can go enjoy it for yourself.

Basically, “Groundhog Day,” in a way similar to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” before it, features an unexplained spiritual intervention into the life of a flawed, stuck, struggling soul. The movie more follows the Dickens line, though, in that the main character does not start out as a man of virtue, like George Bailey, but is still full of buried potential.

The protagonist, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, is a weatherman for a news station in Pittsburgh who is sent to do a story he sees as far beneath his worth — the annual Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney. The town is podunk and full of nobodies; the festival surrounds some kitschy nonsense about whether a rodent will emerge in order to predict an early spring; and the assignment is just proof that the value of his journalistic genius is not being fully appreciated.

But he goes to the podunk town and does the story (half-heartedly) anyway. A storm forces them to stay another night, though, to his dismay. And then, he wakes up to find that the previous day, Groundhog Day, had not even happened as far as anyone else is concerned. So he has to do it over. Then do it over again. Then again. With no suggestion that the cycle will ever end.

In dealing with this predicament, Connors follows a path that somewhat mirrors Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Grief, also known as the Stages of Dying — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was somewhat proud to learn, after Googling, that director Harold Remis says this is indeed what guided screenwriter Danny Rubin’s vision of the stages of Connors’ progress.

By the last phase, after a long journey, Connors is able to not only accept that he lives every day as Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, but embrace it. Each day he tries to maximize the opportunities to grow in virtue and move closer to the True, Good, and Beautiful.

It’s also a love story in that he eventually realizes he has fallen for the innocent, hopeful, poetry-loving producer, Rita, he has been trying to sleep with, unsuccessfully, for all these repeated days. At that point, he gives up trying to use her for momentary pleasure and tries to be a man that would deserve the love of a woman like her. After a time with this new attitude, he emerges as a master piano player, skilled ice sculptor, generous philanthropist, and all around great guy. After a day of doing every possible thing to improve the lives of the people in the town, he receives the praise and admiration of the town at its annual (for him nightly) Groundhog Day dance party.

When the spell is finally broken by this full embracing of his fate, he wakes up to a new day and suggests to Rita, who now loves him back, that they move to Punxsutawney.

Some have suggested it took him centuries repeating this one day to get to that point. Many Christians view it as an analogy for sanctification in this life or purgatory in the next, Hindus and Buddhists for reincarnation towards enlightenment, and others for simply overcoming life’s struggles to become the best version of oneself.

The intent for Phil Connors’ struggle to be seen as relatable to the common experience is made clear when, in a moment of despair, he opens up to a couple blue-collar locals at the bar, saying, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” One of the men pauses, takes a shot of whiskey, and responds, “That about sums it up for me.”

The movie, ultimately, is an opportunity to meditate (in an entertaining way) on our own response to the inevitable suffering and death that life brings and to scenarios where we are left endlessly repeating mundane, or even painful, situations — changing diapers, being stuck talking to “that” person again, another day without that deceased loved one. It has helped many, and will undoubtedly help many more, embrace our trials, like the dopey weatherman did, enough to transcend them and emerge on the other side.