Groundhog Day is brilliant. One of the prime indicators for determining if a movie is truly great or not is how it holds up the more you think about and/or discuss it. The further you delve into Groundhog Day, the deeper it gets. The popularity, academic study, and cultural relevance of this movie have been a very slow build. While audiences and critics in 1993 may have liked the film, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the level of praise and love it has received over the last twenty-plus years. It is a seemingly simple yet eccentric romantic comedy, but beneath the surface lay statements on 1990s ironic distance and cynicism, existential conflict, and the ability for true personal and spiritual growth.
Directed, co-written, and co-produced by fellow Ghostbuster Harold Ramis, the comedy plays to Murray’s strengths and range as an actor; only someone who knew him this well could craft such a perfect role. Phil Connors (Murray) is a local news weatherman who has been sent to Punxsutawney, PA for the third year in a row to cover the Groundhog Festival. Phil’s level of disdain for the idyllic all-American town is reflective of his sentiments for the population at large. Typical for Murray, Phil is egotistical and sarcastic, while somehow still remaining charming and funny. After getting stranded due to a snowstorm (which he predicted would pass by), Phil goes to bed only to wake up on February the second, again. He realizes that he is stuck in a loop, reliving Groundhog Day over and over, and is the only one who knows this is happening. Each incarnation brings a growing affection for his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and new psychological state including confusion, lust, anger, depression, and eventually compassion and intellectual growth.
Part of the genius of this movie is the way each character stays the same every repeated day, whereas Phil gradually descends, then ascends. The townsfolk are still themselves; their “scripts” are only altered by Phil’s interaction with them, so they provide a solid base of “straight men” for Murray’s shenanigans and growing insanity. Ramis’ directing style is repeated as well; scenes are shot in roughly the same manner (such as the slow pull back shot away from the alarm clock) to emphasize the world’s stasis, and only changes as Phil alters his routines. This serves to highlight the seemingly effortlessness of Murray’s acting. He said this was his best work, and I tend to agree; so much of this film lays on his shoulders and his ability to convey a large range of emotions in a believable yet still comedic fashion.
Groundhog Day is life affirming without pandering or being cheesy. It genuinely advocates for the possibility of positive growth through life experiences; getting out there and experiencing what life has to offer is the path to love and enlightenment. None of this should detract from the fact that it is still a very funny movie which has held up over time; Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin specifically took out any topical references so that Phil, Punxsutawney, and the film would always be timeless. Philosophy students study it; psychiatrists use it in therapy; religious leaders have called it the most spiritual movie ever made; it tops many prestigious critics’ “top” lists, and has become part of the American lexicon. This film works on so many levels, there is something that speaks to everyone. Some basic part of our shared humanity has been touched by a deceptively simple Billy Murray comedy, and that’s a beautiful thing.