EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was the February 14, 2005, cover story in National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
Here’s a line you’ll either recognize or you won’t: “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” If you don’t recognize this little gem, you’ve either never seen Groundhog Day or you’re not a fan of what is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the last 40 years. As the day of the groundhog again approaches, it seems only fitting to celebrate what will almost undoubtedly join It’s a Wonderful Life in the pantheon of America’s most uplifting, morally serious, enjoyable, and timeless movies.
When I set out to write this article, I thought it’d be fun to do a quirky homage to an offbeat flick, one I think is brilliant as both comedy and moral philosophy. But while doing what I intended to be cursory research — how much reporting do you need for a review of a twelve-year-old movie that plays constantly on cable? — I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my interest. In the years since its release the film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and followers of the oppressed Chinese Falun Gong movement. Meanwhile, the Internet brims with weighty philosophical treatises on the deep Platonist, Aristotelian, and existentialist themes providing the skin and bones beneath the film’s clown makeup. On National Review Online’s group blog, The Corner, I asked readers to send in their views on the film. Over 200 e-mails later I had learned that countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches. Several pastors sent me excerpts from sermons in which Groundhog Day was the central metaphor. And dozens of committed Christians of all denominations related that it was one of their most cherished movies.
When the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuted a film series on “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” two years ago, it opened with Groundhog Day. The rest of the films were drawn from the ranks of turgid and bleak intellectual cinema, including standards from Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. According to the New York Times, curators of the series were stunned to discover that so many of the 35 leading literary and religious scholars who had been polled to pick the series entries had chosen Groundhog Day that a spat had broken out among the scholars over who would get to write about the film for the catalogue. In a wonderful essay for the Christian magazine Touchstone, theology professor Michael P. Foley wrote that Groundhog Day is “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.” Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, has cited Groundhog Day more than once as one of the few cultural achievements of recent times that will be remembered centuries from now. He was quoted in The New Yorker declaring, “It is a brilliant moral fable offering an Aristotelian view of the world.”
I know what you’re thinking: We’re talking about the movie in which Bill Murray tells a big rat sitting on his lap, “Don’t drive angry,” right? Yep, that’s the one. You might like to know that the rodent in question is actually Jesus — at least that’s what film historian Michael Bronski told the Times. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”
That may be going overboard, but something important is going on here. What is it about this ostensibly farcical film about a wisecracking weatherman that speaks to so many on such a deep spiritual level?
THOROUGHLY POSTMODERN PHIL
A recap is in order. Bill Murray, the movie’s indispensible and perfect lead, plays Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman with delusions of grandeur (he unselfconsciously refers to himself as “the talent”). Accompanied by his producer and love interest, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman (Chris Elliott), Connors goes on assignment to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pa., at which “Punxsutawney Phil” — a real groundhog — comes out of his hole to reveal how much longer winter will last. Connors believes he’s too good for the assignment — and for Punxsutawney, Pittsburgh, and everything in between. He is a thoroughly postmodern man: arrogant, world-weary, and contemptuous without cause.
Rita tells Phil that people love the groundhog story, to which he responds, “People like blood sausage, too, people are morons.” Later, at the Groundhog Festival, she tells him: “You’re missing all the fun. These people are great! Some of them have been partying all night long. They sing songs ‘til they get too cold and then they go sit by the fire and get warm and then they come back and sing some more.” Phil replies, “Yeah, they’re hicks, Rita.”
Phil does his reporting schtick when the groundhog emerges and plans to head home as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, a blizzard stops him at the outskirts of town. A state trooper explains that the highway’s closed: “Don’t you watch the weather reports?” the cop asks. Connors replies (blasphemously, according to some), “I make the weather!” Moving on, the cop explains he can either turn around to Punxsutawney or freeze to death. “Which is it?” he asks. Connors answers, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” Reluctantly returning to Punxsutawney, Connors spends another night in a sweet little bed and breakfast run by the sort of un-ironic, un-hip, decent folks he considers hicks.
The next morning, the clock radio in his room goes off and he hears the same radio show he’d heard the day before, complete with a broadcast of “I Got You Babe” and the declaration, “It’s Groundhog Day!” At first, Connors believes it’s an amateurish gaffe by a second-rate radio station. But slowly he discovers it’s the same day all over again. “What if there is no tomorrow?” he asks. “There wasn’t one today!”
And this is the plot device for the whole film, which has seeped into the larger culture. Indeed, “Groundhog Day” has become shorthand for (translating nicely) “same stuff, different day.” Troops in Iraq regularly use it as a rough synonym for “snafu,” which (also translated nicely) means “situation normal: all fouled-up.” Connors spends an unknown number of days repeating the exact same day over and over again. Everyone else experiences that day for the “first” time, while Connors experiences it with Sisyphean repetition. Estimates vary on how many actual Groundhog Days Connors endures. We see him relive 34 of them. But many more are implied. According to Harold Ramis, the co-writer and director, the original script called for him to endure 10,000 years in Punxsutawney, but it was probably closer to ten.
But this is a small mystery. A far more important one is why the day repeats itself and why it stops repeating at the end. Because the viewer is left to draw his own conclusions, we have what many believe is the best cinematic moral allegory popular culture has produced in decades — perhaps ever.
Interpretations of this central mystery vary. But central to all is a morally complicated and powerful story arc to the main character. When Phil Connors arrives in Punxsutawney, he’s a perfect representative of the Seinfeld generation: been-there-done-that. When he first realizes he’s not crazy and that he can, in effect, live forever without consequences — if there’s no tomorrow, how can you be punished? — he indulges his adolescent self. He shoves cigarettes and pastries into his face with no fear of love-handles or lung cancer. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he declares as he goes for a drunk-driving spree. He uses his ability to glean intelligence about the locals to bed women with lies. When that no longer gratifies, he steals money and gets kinky, dressing up and play-acting. When Andie MacDowell sees him like this she quotes a poem by Sir Walter Scott: “The wretch, concentrated all in self / Living, shall forfeit fair renown / And, doubly dying, shall go down / To the vile dust, from whence he sprung / Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”
Connors cackles at her earnestness. “You don’t like poetry?” She asks. “I love poetry,” he replies, “I just thought that was Willard Scott.”
Still, Conners schemes to bed Rita with the same techniques he used on other women, and fails, time and again. When he realizes that his failures stem not from a lack of information about Rita’s desires but rather from his own basic hollowness, he grows suicidal. Or, some argue, he grows suicidal after learning that all of the material and sexual gratification in the world is not spiritually sustaining. Either way, he blames the groundhog and kills it in a murder-suicide pact — if you can call killing the varmint murder. Discovering, after countless more suicide attempts, that he cannot even die without waking up the next day he begins to believe he is “a god.” When Rita scoffs at this — noting that she had twelve years of Catholic school (the only mention of religion in the film) — he replies that he didn’t say he was “the God” but merely “a god.” Then again, he remarks, maybe God really isn’t all-powerful, maybe he’s just been around so long he knows everything that’s going to happen. This, according to some, is a reference to the doctrine of God’s “middle knowledge,” first put forward by the 16th-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, who argued that human free will is possible because God’s omniscience includes His knowledge of every possible outcome of every possible decision.
The point is that Connors slowly realizes that what makes life worth living is not what you get from it, but what you put into it. He takes up the piano. He reads poetry — no longer to impress Rita, but for its own sake. He helps the locals in matters great and small, including catching a boy who falls from a tree every day. “You never thank me!” he yells at the fleeing brat. He also discovers that there are some things he cannot change, that he cannot be God. The homeless man whom Connors scorns at the beginning of the film becomes an obsession of his at the end because he dies every Groundhog Day. Calling him “pop” and “dad,” Connors tries to save him but never can.
By the end of the film, Connors is no longer obsessed with bedding Rita. He’s in love with her, without reservation and without hope of his affection being requited. Only in the end, when he completely gives up hope, does he in fact “get” the woman he loves. And with that, with her love, he finally wakes on February 3, the great wheel of life no longer stuck on Groundhog Day. As NR’s own Rick Brookhiser explains it, “The curse is lifted when Bill Murray blesses the day he has just lived. And his reward is that the day is taken from him. Loving life includes loving the fact that it goes.”
Personally, I always saw Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return of the same in this story. That was Nietzsche’s idea — metaphorical or literal — to imagine life as an endless repetition of the same events over and over. How would this shape your actions? What would you choose to live out for all eternity? Others see Camus, who writes about how we should live once we realize the absurdity of life. But existentialism doesn’t explain the film’s broader appeal. It is the religious resonance — if not necessarily explicit religious themes — that draws many to it. There’s much to the view of Punxsutawney as purgatory: Connors goes to his own version of hell, but since he’s not evil it turns out to be purgatory, from which he is released by shedding his selfishness and committing to acts of love. Meanwhile, Hindus and Buddhists see versions of reincarnation here, and Jews find great significance in the fact that Connors is saved only after he performs mitzvahs (good deeds) and is returned to earth, not heaven, to perform more.
The burning question: Was all this intentional? Yes and no. Ultimately, the story is one of redemption, so it should surprise no one that it speaks to those in search of the same. But there is also a secular, even conservative, point to be made here. Connors’s metamorphosis contradicts almost everything postmodernity teaches. He doesn’t find paradise or liberation by becoming more “authentic,” by acting on his whims and urges and listening to his inner voices. That behavior is soul-killing. He does exactly the opposite: He learns to appreciate the crowd, the community, even the bourgeois hicks and their values. He determines to make himself better by reading poetry and the classics and by learning to sculpt ice and make music, and most of all by shedding his ironic detachment from the world.
Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, the writer of the original story, are not philosophers. Ramis was born Jewish and is now a lackadaisical Buddhist. He wears meditation beads on his wrist, he told the New York Times, “because I’m on a Buddhist diet. They’re supposed to remind me not to eat, but actually just get in the way when I’m cutting my steak.” Rubin’s original script was apparently much more complex and philosophical — it opened in the middle of Connors’s sentence to purgatory and ended with the revelation that Rita was caught in a cycle of her own. Murray wanted the film to be more philosophical (indeed, the film is surely the best sign of his reincarnation as a great actor), but Ramis constantly insisted that the film be funny first and philosophical second.
And this is the film’s true triumph. It is a very, very funny movie, in which all of the themes are invisible to people who just want to have a good time. There’s no violence, no strong language, and the sexual content is about as tame as it gets. (Some e-mailers complained that Connors is only liberated when he has sex with Rita. Not true: They merely fall asleep together.) If this were a French film dealing with the same themes, it would be in black and white, the sex would be constant and depraved, and it would end in cold death. My only criticism is that Andie MacDowell isn’t nearly charming enough to warrant all the fuss (she says a prayer for world peace every time she orders a drink!). And yet for all the opportunities the film presents for self-importance and sentimentality, it almost never falls for either. The best example: When the two lovebirds emerge from the B&B to embrace a happy new life together in what Connors considers a paradisiacal Punxsutawney, Connors declares, “Let’s live here!” They kiss, the music builds, and then in the film’s last line he adds: “We’ll rent to start.”