One of the many questions surrounding the story of Groundhog Day is how many times Phil actually lived over that same day in Punxsutawney, PN. The film itself is, naturally, ambiguous on the subject (and it’s doubtful, under the circumstances, whether there could even be a definitive answer), but given what we’re shown, with him becoming proficient in at least two languages, sculpture, and piano on top of everything else, thirty years isn’t an unreasonable guess. Which means we may have just caught up to Phil in a way.
Groundhog Day is one of those films that doesn’t seem like a modern classic on the surface, just one of any number of romantic-comedy fantasies of its era (albeit an unusually intelligent and well-formed specimen). Like Phil finding himself after repeating his days over and over, it takes a bit of time for one to realize just what we have here.
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” asks a despondent Phil as he realizes the fate that has befallen him. To which the soused-up bowling alley patron next to him glumly answers, “That about sums it up for me.”
Phil’s fate, as everyone knows, is to live the same day over and over again forever, in the same little town that he hates, waking up to the same sappy song every morning. Nothing he does during that day has any permanency, save in his own memory. He can neither leave Punxsutawney nor substantially affect the world around him, for everything resets the next day as if it had never been.
The film very wisely does not give any kind of explanation for the time loop, avoiding the triteness that any such answer would bring. Ironically enough, this makes the central conceit feel more natural: Phil doesn’t become cursed to relive the same day for eternity because of any external agent, but rather because he is the kind of man he is. Selfish, arrogant, and flippant, Phil is the epitome of the successful late-20th century American of a certain type, a man who knows how to navigate an essentially atomistic and amoral culture, achieving a degree of material success that he thinks counts for more than it does (he expects people to recognize him on the street because he’s a TV weatherman) and which his only goal in life is to increase. He has no ties to people or places, only his own desires.
And he especially hates the small, provincial little town of Punxsutawney, with its transcendentally silly Groundhog Day tradition and its unsophisticated, odd-ball population. To him, Punxsutawney represents everything he holds in contempt and he doesn’t bother to hide it during his initial stay there.
The time loop is therefore an extension of Phil’s own character. This thoroughly self-centered, materialistic man finds himself suddenly cut off from any kind of social responsibility, caught in a world without consequences. And though, much to his chagrin, this world is limited to the little town he hates, that too is fitting for a man who seems to look down on the whole world. His curse is, in fact, only a manifestation of the life he has led; isolated, contemptuous, and self-centered. He would never get this day in the Virgin Islands (as he laments) precisely because the islands would not evoke the disdain in his heart that the little Pennsylvania town does, the disdain that is such an essential part of his character.
As C.S. Lewis said of Hell, the endless Groundhog Day forces Phil “to lie wholly in the self and make the best of what he finds there.” Naturally, he enjoys it at first, reveling in the hedonism the situation allows him. All the while, though, even in the midst of his debauchery, he feels the lack of what he really desires, represented by his perky producer Rita (as shown by the fact he keeps calling her name during sex, much to his temporary partner’s annoyance).
What Rita represents is substance and meaningful connection. And as it turns out, Phil can’t fake his way into that; his elaborately planned and practiced seductions end in failure each time. And his inability to get what he wants out of her – to find that real, substantial relationship – eventually drives him to despair and finally suicide. Though even death is no escape from Groundhog Day.
Yet, interestingly enough, Rita and what she represents is not the key to escaping either. When, at a complete loss, Phil finally opens up to her about his situation, they do indeed form a connection. But he still wakes up that morning with everything back as it was.
True love is not the escape from the curse of modernity; it is the reward. The escape is something different. Just as Phil’s curse is brought upon him because he was ‘that sort of man,’ the escape comes when he ceases to be so. That is, when he treats his life and the people around him, as if they mattered, not as a means to pleasure or personal satisfaction, but for their own sake. Some of this involves reading, taking up music and art (ice sculpting, the most fitting medium for a man who knows there will be no tomorrow), and so on. But more significantly, it involves his looking beyond himself to the people around him.
Here the film turns upon its head. At the beginning, Phil treated his fellow man as if they didn’t matter. Then he found himself in a situation where, truly, he could say they didn’t, since any harm he did would be undone come six AM and he would never have to face any consequences for it. Now, though, he starts treating them as if they did matter, all of them, even knowing that any good he does will likewise be undone.
To put it another way, from being an atomized selfish individual with no ties to any person or place, Phil becomes an integral part of a community, surrounded by people he knows well and cares for. Not all of it is rewarding (e.g. the old homeless man dies whatever he does, and the boy falling out the tree never thanks him), but he does it anyway, because it is the thing done, not what you get out of it, that matters.
It’s after Phil learns this, after he becomes a different kind of man, that he wins the girl and the spell is broken.
So what do we have here? Not just a great comedy. Not just a great film. What we have is a genuine new myth, a myth of modernity. The arrogance and self-centeredness, the crushing sense of futility and isolation, the flights into hedonism and finally existential despair, and with it the antidote of personal connections, community spirit, and self-forgetfulness, all compacted in a brilliantly simple fantasy. Live personally and treat the days as if they mattered, and only then can you escape the bleak, cold winter of modernity.
Needless to say, the film hasn’t become any less relevant over the past thirty years. I doubt it ever will.
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