On Groundhog Day, we take a look back at the comedy hit that gave Bill Murray a chance to show his spiritual side, over and over and over again . . .
There are movies for Christmas, the Fourth of July, Halloween—movies for pretty much every celebration on the calendar. But there’s only one Groundhog Day. Unsurprisingly so, given that the material—Punxsutawney Phil emerging from his Pennsylvania burrow to let us know if we’re in for an early spring or six more weeks of winter—is a little thin.
The tradition does, however, make an appealingly folksy backdrop for director Harold Ramis’ comic fantasy, which opened in 1993. (On February 21, a bit late to cash in.) In the film, which Ramis co-wrote with Danny Rubin, from Rubin’s story, a crabby Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray), is obliged to cover the “hick” festivities. A blizzard he failed to forecast strands Phil in Punxsutawney, for the day . . . but when he awakens in his hotel room to go home, he finds himself trapped in February 2, repeating the same sequence of daily events, in an inexplicable time loop. Phil succumbs to despair, and nihilism, even kidnapping his marmot namesake and committing multiple suicides to break the cycle. His attraction to his producer, Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell, a year away from her defining success in Four Weddings and a Funeral), provides a glimmer of hope, and a way out, as Phil begins to effect positive change in the community he once despised. There may be only one movie about Groundhog Day, but that movie contains many possible Groundhog Days—just under 13,000, according to the WhatCulture website, which tracked the phenomenon.
TV commercials and trailers for the forthcoming teen horror movie Before I Fall may be giving you déjà vu—the movie, from a popular young adult novel, reuses the same “Groundhog Day” concept, for thrills. Groundhog Day is more philosophical, and the best vehicle for its star’s surprising spiritual journey onscreen. Few remember Murray’s straight-faced take on W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, where his World War I ambulance driver seeks enlightenment in India. Leavened with humor, Scrooged successfully updated the Victorian-era life lessons of Charles Dickens, and the “wisdom” of groundskeeper Carl Spackler in a previous Ramis-directed hit, Caddyshack, came to the attention of the Dalai Lama.
Other than a change of locale to Woodstock, Illinois. (Punxsutawney had Phil, but not a photogenic town center), filming was unremarkable, though Murray was bitten twice by groundhogs. A serious rift occurred between the former Ghostbusters co-stars, however. Murray wanted the film moodier, and darker; Ramis wanted to keep it light. The in-between quality is what keeps the film ambiguous, and compelling. Not long after its release, U.S. soldiers in Bosnia and Somalia began referring to the repetitive stretches between combat situations as “Groundhog Days,” and President Bill Clinton used the phrase in a 1996 speech. Held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from 2002 to 2016, detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi likened his plight to Groundhog Day in his Guantanamo Diary, published in 2015.
Like Phil Connors, Groundhog Day has evolved. “Are you living the same day over and over again?” read signs held aloft by Hasidic Jews outside theaters showing the movie, Ramis said. The film mirrors his and Rubin’s Buddhist beliefs (where the soul takes 10,000 years to evolve), and has also been seen as an allegory about the Judeo-Christian concept of purgatory, with Phil redeemed by love of mankind and his many mitzvahs (good deeds). Ramis, who referred to himself as “Buddish,” said yogis and psychiatrists alike found the film enlightening. Catholicculture.org labeled it one of the 50 best Catholic films of all time.
The film goes on, and on: Rubin has written the book for a Groundhog Day musical, which premiered to rave reviews in London’s West End last summer and opens on Broadway this spring. There was one uplifting ending in its cycle, as Murray and Ramis, estranged since its production, patched things up before the director’s death in 2014. Time heals all wounds.