In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a weatherman named Phil who sucks so thoroughly, he has to live the same day a thousand+ times in order to become remotely deserving of Andy McDowell.
Time loops are a wonderful SFF trope ripe for all sorts of narrative opportunities. Groundhog Day is probably the definitive example. Star Trek aired their take earlier (the episode “Cause and Effect” aired in 1992), but Groundhog Day has a slant both more spiritual and funnier.
It’s hard not to talk about Groundhog Day without also talking about my favorite movie, Palm Springs, which was a response to Groundhog Day and reuses/reconceives/expands upon almost every element. Most notably, Palm Springs puts both of the romantic couple inside of the time loop; Groundhog Day leaves the guy in the relationship looped while he’s desperately in love with the woman who remains outside the loop. The former feels more relevant to actually having a relationship with someone. The latter leaves Phil gamifying his meet-cute with Rita in ways that are terribly creepy.
In fact, the conceit of Groundhog Day – an awful cynic needs to loop through time in order to grow some humanity – demands that we spend a lot of time with someone thoroughly unlikable making unpleasant decisions. Sure, he grows out of manipulating women to get them in the sack. He grows out of pushing his way past Rita’s boundaries to try to hook up with her before time resets. But he doesn’t do it until we get a full montage of this asshole trying his best to violate her verbal and physical refusals, which makes me hate him no matter how he changes.
With infinite time, Phil becomes a master pianist, an expert in French poetry, and someone who actually commits to helping people. His desire to become kind springs from his love for Rita. He admires how she approaches the world with kindness, and he has to internalize it to get better. I can say this nodding along with myself, like, “Yeah, the whole thing is about someone so stubborn he needs intervention from God to stop sucking and fall in love for real,” and I still just don’t like the guy or want him to end up with Rita. Even once he’s a zen coolguy sculptor who changes tires.
The movie teaches Phil that he cannot save everyone, and that some people simply must die because it’s their time. But there is no lesson that he cannot have whoever he wants, whenever he wants. People are something he can learn to manipulate so effectively that he can get anything. He is still rewarded by winning Rita at the end. Despite being given loads of details and opportunities to refuse him, Rita still feels like a hollowly warm feminine character whose approval mostly serves as a metric of how well Phil is growing.
Did you know some of us learn to be kind through the normal course of life, despite having trouble, despite being abused, despite trauma? Why does the universe need to massively intercede with this one asshole anyway?
But I know that this is emotional metaphor, really. It’s about the seismic way that love can change you and make you hope to be better for the right person. Whatever.
As a Harold Ramis movie, this is a National Lampoon-style comedy where you just have to swallow the cynical shitty protagonists and their attitudes whole in order to enjoy the great elements of filmmaking. The crappy characters are always drawn with full humanity. They feel vividly real. You’d believe that any of these people lived around your corner back in the 90s. I wouldn’t want to know or befriend them, but…
I also love this screenplay, frankly. I love how little handholding it does on the subject matter. There isn’t ever an answer as to why the loop happens, and there is little dialogue or textual explanation of Phil’s growth. When something happens, the emotional impact on viewers is so profound that you know what Bill Murray’s thinking with That Look in the morning, and it’s all the narrative necessary.
The jokes are hilarious, when it wants to be funny; it’s incredibly moving when it wants to be sad. I never get tired of looking at a chunky lil groundhog either. They move through concepts at a proper clip. This was always very watchable for me as a kid, and my 13yo sat through it with joy. I just find all the comedies with National Lampoon adjacency to have a too-bleak edge, and it evokes memories of people I don’t like, but Groundhog Day remains a philosophical and romantic scientific classic. It’s a staple. I have fun watching it, especially with my family. I kinda hate it.
(image source: Columbia Pictures)