Harold Ramis (1993)
phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every
day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
man at the bar: That about sums it up for me.
THIS CONVERSATION LIES AT THE HEART of an unusual film from the 1990s—unusual because it’s a popular Hollywood romantic comedy that also offers great wisdom and spiritual profundity. Something remarkable, perhaps even magical, happened in 1993, when Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis (who also directed) wrote the screenplay for Groundhog Day. While Ramis wrote a number of successful comedies over the years, neither he nor Rubin ever came close to repeating what they accomplished with this brilliant modern classic.
Groundhog Day tells the story of Phil Connors (a perfectly cast Bill Murray), a bored, cynical, and arrogant TV weatherman who drives to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, with his crew to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. A blizzard forces them to stay overnight, but when Phil wakes up the next morning, he discovers that it’s still Groundhog Day, and he will have to live it all over again—and again and again. Phil tries to take advantage of this situation to seduce Rita (Andie MacDowell), his producer, but no matter what tricks he tries, she won’t have him. “I could never love anyone like you, Phil, because you never love anyone but yourself,” she says.
Then one day Phil gives up on all the pretenses and tells Rita the truth, admitting that he’s been acting like a jerk. To his surprise, Rita not only listens to him, but believes and sympathizes with him. This has a profound effect on Phil. When he wakes up the next morning, he is determined to use his unique opportunity to become a better person. When his transformation is complete, and he spends an entire day thinking only of others, Phil is finally allowed to wake up to a new day.
Groundhog Day is a timeless parable, and even more relevant in today’s self-absorbed society than it was in 1993. None of us will experience what Phil does, but like the man at the bar, many of us go through the same motions day after day, living as if nothing we do matters. We may not be as self-obsessed as Phil, but we too can be stuck in time when we fall into the rut of thinking primarily about ourselves and our unfair lot in life.
I’ve watched Groundhog Day seven times, and the film comes to my mind automatically whenever I begin to feel stuck in time. But getting unstuck is not as simple as determining to be a better person. The film itself provides a clue to how we can start on this journey.
Rita says that Phil only loves himself, but in my opinion she is mistaken. I believe Phil hates himself as much as he hates everyone around him. The empathy and compassion he eventually displays have been locked behind a sarcastic façade that protects him from people (including himself). The façade only drops when Rita cares for him as he really is. When Phil recognizes that he is worthy of love, he allows himself to grow as a person. Instead of driving people away with belittling comments, he begins drawing people to him by helping them feel better about themselves, just as Rita did for him.
As an introvert in a society that is proficient at keeping people busy, I have always struggled to find the time and energy to think about others and reach out to them the way I know I should. Until I watched Phil’s transformation, I didn’t realize how much my struggle (and my busyness) had to do with not taking care of myself (and perhaps not feeling I was worthy of care). Once I made the effort to properly love myself, it was much easier to reach out to others.
Phil’s transformation culminates with him speaking before the weather camera: “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
When so many people around us are so obviously experiencing themselves as broken, lonely, and hopeless, becoming a better person may mean primarily helping others to keep warm, or even to flourish, by sincerely listening and showing them they are worthy of love. Through recognizing that we are stuck in time and caring for ourselves enough to help those around us become better people, we become unstuck and begin to flourish ourselves.
Such a transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Phil has to live the same day thousands of times before he gets it right. Each day provides another opportunity to take a small step forward, to do the best that we can on the journey toward authentic, meaningful life.
Vic Thiessen is the film writer for Canadian Mennonite magazine and a monthly contributor to Third Way Café. He has hosted weekly film nights for seventeen years and reviewed more than eight hundred films.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.