Phil Connors (Bill Murray), the protagonist of the classic movie Groundhog Day, is not a nice guy. In fact, Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis’ script makes that clear right away. The meteorologist and broadcaster is irritating and with a cynicism that borders on antipathy, and he enjoys it. For this egotistical and rowdy character, the world around him—and everyone who inhabits it—is a nuisance. One, moreover, that he tries to overcome as quickly as he can. Perhaps for this reason, being forced to live the most boring day of his life, over and over again, is the worst of punishments.
It may seem like a simple premise, interpreted through the lens of the science fiction genre. After all, the cinema is full of unsavory figures who end up going through a redemption arc, even by force. But Phil also has to face a caveat: that of facing his own failures as they occur.
Falling into the same conversations that make you impatient. Understanding that at the end of the day, his perspective on his surroundings is the only thing that really changes. A chronological trap that, throughout Groundhog Day, will force you to see that every decision, big and small, leads to a kind of teaching. That even the most inconsequential date of his life is loaded with lessons and a rare beauty.
Groundhog Day is a humorous little gem that doesn’t lose its validity
When Groundhog Day came out in 1993, It was called “sensitive and with a simple humor”, but soon, it found its public. It wasn’t just that the time loop Phil found himself in, it was a thinly veiled lesson in the simplicity of everyday hard learning.
Also, its surreal tone was better appreciated, which is accentuated each time the identical setting crushes the character a little more. This is a comedy that appeals to the heart of the routine, to the sensation —that we have all faced at some time— about the ordinary and the vulgar. But Harold Ramis, and especially the performance of one of his favorite actors, take him to a dimension of complex emotions.
The best thing about Groundhog Day is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Harold Ramis’s direction has the same deceptively optimistic sense of Dave, President for a Day, his other release that year. But unlike the fable of a man who does good with power, the film, starring Bill Murray, goes in the opposite direction. At least initially, Phil takes advantage of the countless times he’ll wake up in the same bed to Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You, Babe’. Find the profit in shelling out the lazy hours of a ridiculous day of his life.
The naughty boy who knows all the tricks of any given day
In the town of Punxsutawney, the naive tradition of Groundhog Day is a major event. Which makes Phil’s inflated and childish ego feel even more hurt by having to cover a celebration whose centerpiece is holding a furry animal in his arms. For this bad guy, humiliation comes from giving importance to a banal custom in a town lost among the maps. It is just that context, which makes the time cycle deeper and more honest, much more complicated to understand than it seems.
Even for the character. Enraged, after having experienced the same events for the fifth time, he buries his head in his arms. “One day, I met a beautiful woman, we made love and everything was great,” he says to anyone who wants to listen. “Why isn’t that day repeated but this one?” These are, of course, the first signs of despair. Back then, Phil stole a few dollars, went to bed with an old classmate, conned several people off guard. The experience is turning from fun to dreary. “I must have gone crazy” he assures himself. “There is no other explanation for it being today, among any other moment in my life.”
The love that barely survives twenty-four hours on Groundhog Day
The circumstance has aggravating factors. Phil did not travel alone to cover him, but Rita, the producer of his program, accompanies him. The charming woman played by Andie MacDowell is a mystery to the curmudgeonly protagonist, he finds that she is also a seductive one. Which leads to a subtle attraction that is reinforced by the impossible and extravagant coexistence.
It’s a dirty trick, no doubt, of whatever causes time to reset every time. The meteorologist lives with the woman he finds most irresistible, without her having any memory of anything. None of the conversations, the first smiles, the understanding and, in the end, falling in love with a closeness that disappears at dawn.
Harold Ramis, who was an expert in a type of comedy that investigates the small reasons that move the will, builds his most inspired work with Phil. On the other hand, he lets him fall into the chronological maze from which he cannot escape and makes him a victim, a kind of demigod and in the end, a hostage. On the other, he offers her the opportunity to understand that a handful of infinite, interminable hours, linked to the point of maddening, can have a reason.
For his middle stretch and after Phil tries to die in hundreds of different ways, he discovers that the duplicate reality has a purpose. He can have it, at least. It is then that he begins, the most moving sequences in the film.
Once upon a time, a story that was repeated over and over again
Because in reality, the character is not as obnoxious as he was cyclically shown during the infinite day in Punxsutawney. Little by little, he goes from the wicked euphoria of discovering an inexplicable secret, to a depressed resignation. But the journey does not end there. This hero, reluctantly, ends up loving the town, its traditions and, of course, its inhabitants.
The sarcastic man, who had no enthusiasm for a story with human content, begins to contemplate the wonders of the simple. He to use the time —which is what he has left over— to learn to play the piano. Help an old woman. Prevent a man from choking to death.
Groundhog Day has such a solid script that it goes through all the possible events of an endlessly alternating life, in a single setting. The town is transformed, it becomes a friendly place. Neighbors become close friends, grateful debtors of favors that they will only remember for 24 hours. Phil is happy, integrated into the community, he loves and respects it. His endless journey gave her the mysterious gift of appreciating little things.
Which also implies a hopeless love, destined for failure and oblivion, for Rita. Again, Bill Murray’s character attempts the trap. He seduces her with tricks, manipulates her, tries to deceive her. However, he never makes any progress. Only when he’s finally vulnerable can Phil connect with the woman he won’t remember the next day. The one who will never know that he carved an ice sculpture for her, that he heard her talk about her mastery of her French literature. But he learns that the feeling meant to be fleeting also has beauty in it. Like everything that disappears at dawn when Groundhog Day begins again.
The little miracle of a different day
When time finally moves in the right direction again, Phil doesn’t know it. Not immediate. He’ll need Sonny and Cher to stop singing on the radio and Rita to pinch his arm to understand the prodigy. Hundreds of days encapsulated in one.
Countless lives, a long apprenticeship that did not leave a single physical trace. But the character has more than enough with the acquired wisdom. Just as important as remembering his place in time, in the way of understanding the future. Of course, also love, perhaps the focal point of the joy of a truly new day, again.
Groundhog Day has the magic of the classics that do not need a time to be understood. Much less, something more than being part of a small and unforgettable type of cinema that has an unconditional following. Perhaps, as Harold Ramis said when asked why writing about a nasty guy getting a lesson about life, it’s all about “learning from the impossible.” The biggest secret that the feature film has thirty years counting, to whoever wants to listen to it.