25 years later, Groundhog Day is an American masterpiece

Last year two films came to the big screen with the same premise: Happy Death Day found a college student reliving the day of her murder over and over until she discovered her killer’s identity, and Before I Fall followed a high schooler reliving the day of her fatal car crash over and over until she learns to change. Three year prior in Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise found himself reliving the day of his death in an alien invasion over and over.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

These three films are all reimaginings of the story told 25 years ago in Harold Ramis’s comedy classic, Groundhog Day. Although it was certainly not the first to introduce this concept, Groundhog Day is the most well known, and the name is basically synonymous with the feeling of repetitive daily monotony. No other film that uses the conceit can escape a comparison: Edge of Tomorrow was dubbed the sci-fi Groundhog Day, Before I Fall the teen movie Groundhog Day, and Happy Death Day the horror Groundhog Day.

It’s hard to believe, then, that Groundhog Day wasn’t always the cultural force it has become today. The film opened to modestly positive reviews, but was hardly revered; it earned zero nominations at the Oscars. In its initial 1993 review, the Washington Post wrote that “For a time, the movie's pretty good...[but] "Groundhog" will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress.”

Support for the movie grew over time, though, and Groundhog Day proved the Post wrong with its induction into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006. In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the 8th best American fantasy movie of all time. In a review revisiting the film in 2005, Roger Ebert considered how he had underestimated it on his initial viewing: “‘Groundhog Day’ is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.”

Feb. 12, 2018 will mark the 25th anniversary of the film, and it has now been fully reappraised as an American classic, and fully ingrained into our cultural lexicon. But when something becomes whittled down to a signature phrase or moment, even though it’s adored, the original product can often feel lost. Groundhog Day is more than a way to describe a plot, or the feeling of daily tedium. On its 25th anniversary, let’s recognize it for what it is: an American masterpiece.

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Groundhog Day begins with disgruntled weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) preparing to head to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the town’s annual shtick: asking the famed local groundhog whether he’s seen his shadow. It’s an event Phil has covered three times already, and he clearly thinks the charade is below his pay grade.

Upon arriving in Punxsutawney, Phil is incessantly abrasive to his cameraman (Chris Elliott) and producer (Andie MacDowell). He’s rude and narcissistic, telling anyone who will listen that another station is interested in him — a claim no one is too worried about.

Phil phones in a sarcastic broadcast of the Groundhog Day festivities, wanting to escape the small town as quickly as he can. After a massive blizzard moves into town, however, Phil finds himself stuck in Punxsutawney for one more night, or so he thinks. Phil wakes up to discover that it is Groundhog Day again ... and again ... and again. (It’s not clear precisely how many days Phil is stuck in Punxsutawney, but some have tried to calculate it.)

Phil’s reaction to this temporal prison evolves slowly. Initially, he’s confused, and then deeply afraid. The repetition of events starts to feel as if they’re mocking his inability to escape them: the radio broadcasters’ banter; Ned’s (Stephen Tobolowsky) exuberant, invasive greeting; the groundhog predicting six more weeks of winter. They also have the effect of making the film more memorable. I may not always remember exactly what happens to Phil, but I’ll never forget Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’ playing from his alarm.

Soon, Phil realizes he’s free to do whatever he wants, and exercises this power to selfish ends. He punches Ned, steals from the bank, and gorges on junk food. He finally gets to know his producer Rita, but only in a shallow attempt to sleep with her. She sees right through it.

After running through these indulgences, nothing changes, and Phil quickly loses interest in the debauchery his situation has allowed for. He enters into a spell of anger and depression, becoming even more bitter than he was before the whole ordeal started. He starts committing suicide repeatedly, an act the film presents somberly but without judgment, to no avail.

This wide range of emotions elevates Groundhog Day. The film often goes broadly comedic, but also explores a genuine sadness with an honest sense of empathy. It’s a range that reflects Bill Murray’s ability to hit all these emotional points so fluidly; few other actors could have made this film work so well. When he punches Ned, Murray exudes a delightfully impish glee, and when he takes his own life, it’s a deeply felt act of desperation.

This bout of depression turns out to be just as ineffectual as Phil’s earlier lawlessness, though, and he soon transitions to some vague state of zen. He takes on new skills such as the piano and ice sculpting, not out of a sense of narcissism but a legitimate enthusiasm for self-improvement. He also — for the first time — starts to think of others. He gets to know Rita again, this time not for sex but to foster a genuine connection. As he does, he becomes the opposite of his former, narcissist persona. “I don’t deserve someone like you,” he tells her late in the film, and he means it.

The fact that he means this statement is essential to the film’s greatness. What makes Groundhog Day so innovative is that it not only tells us what it means to live a good life, but shows us that this behavior must come from a genuine ethos. You can’t be good in order to advance your own place in the world, but because you know being good is truly what’s best for the world, and yourself.

The film’s ending is also strikingly unique, and risky, in a couple other ways. First, the film reckons with the idea that just because Phil is able to change does not mean that he’s able to change everything. A brutal sequence near the end in which Phil repeatedly tries and fails to save an old man’s life awakens him to the realization that death is an inevitably and natural component of life, a concept Ramis addresses very matter-of-factly.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Groundhog Day never attempts to explain how or why Phil’s situation came to be, or exactly how it resolves itself. It’s a move that underscores just how similar Phil’s plight is to our own struggles with daily monotony. Phil had no magic spell cast on him; he simply managed to find a little more time than the rest of us to figure himself out.

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Twenty-five years later, Groundhog Day’s structure is not only iconic, but standard in American popular culture. I’m not sure there’s any single reason there have been a few films that have repurposed the Groundhog Day template in recent years. Perhaps being forced to repeat our mistakes until we learn from them is just a good way to tell a story, and one that is easy to relate to our daily lives. During one moment of exasperation, Phil asks some townies what they would do in his shoes: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” The response suggests Phil’s situation isn’t as foreign to real-life as he might believe: “That about sums it up for me.”

For this reason, Groundhog Day feels profound. Yes, it’s a comedy, but it also examines how we behave every day. The irony is that the film was never intended to be as philosophical as many understand it to be. As the movie’s writer, Danny Rubin, recently explained: “The movie was never intended, by me or by Harold, to be anything more than a good, heartfelt, entertaining story.” Yet the movie routinely draws lofty comparisons, from Buddhism to Nietzsche.

From my own limited literary intake, the thinker Groundhog Day most immediately brings to mind is David Foster Wallace. In a story briefly mentioned in his landmark work Infinite Jest (and later expounded upon in an excellent speech at Kenyon College), Wallace introduces two fish swimming together who run into a third, elder fish. The elder fish greets them and asks them how the water is, prompting one of the younger fish to turn to the other and ask, “What the hell is water?”

The idea, of course, is that the young fish are so accustomed to their existence that they are unable to see what so abundantly surrounds them. Wallace tells the story to show us that our default vision of the world is often very limited in scope. In Groundhog Day, the endless time loop is Phil’s elderly fish: it allows him to see what had always been around him, if only he’d been looking. By the very end, Phil’s outlook is so rosy that he even proposes to Rita that they live in Punxsutawney.

Interestingly, the situation on the set of Groundhog Day was near the opposite of the bliss Phil finds by the film’s conclusion. The filming process destroyed the friendship between Ramis and Murray, who didn’t speak for decades after the movie wrapped. There’s a sobering irony in the fact that the actor so gracefully portraying the transformation of a man from self-centered curmudgeon to empathetic protagonist could not scrutinize his own shortcomings to save his friendship. I have a hard time deciding whether this undercuts the film or reinforces it. On one hand, Murray is fundamentally unable to change like Phil did. But on on the other, perhaps if he’d had the time to see the water around him like Phil did, he could have changed.

Regardless, the time loop leading to enlightenment and personal growth is the story Hollywood keeps telling. And maybe the reason Groundhog Day gained so much love gradually over time is because recognizing our default mode of operation and changing for the better is a really hard lesson to learn, albeit a profound one, if we have the chance to step back and see it. And I think, to some small degree, that having Groundhog Day exist as a commonly understood touchpoint in our cultural lexicon can help us get there.

Late in the film, Phil tells Rita she looks like an angel. Ebert remarks on the importance of this moment to close his review: “The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.” To say that my life feels like Groundhog Day is to say both that it feels inescapably repetitive and that it can be changed if we first are able to change ourselves. It brings us one step closer to seeing the angel right in front of us, or the water all around us.