There’s something indelibly appealing about time loop films. You can watch a hundred of them and never know quite where each one is going to go. 1993’s Groundhog Day is perhaps the most famous of the genre—a paradigm of sorts—and there’s good reason.
Bill Murray plays big city weatherman Phil Connors, a misanthropic narcissist who is assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in the small wintery town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He’s been reporting in Punxsutawney for a few years straight now and he hates it. He hates the town, the people, and the over-importance of a groundhog tasked with determining the changing of the season. Hoping to leave after just one night in town, he and his news team are stuck there due to a blizzard. The next day, he wakes up and realizes he’s living Groundhog Day all over again. Phil is our protagonist by appointment only. He’s not completely likable at first, but just intriguing enough that we want to see more. And we do.
There’s some debate as to how long Phil is stuck in the loop, but most educated guesses place it in the 30 year range. During that time, Phil’s trajectory is very real. His negativity first spirals downward until he becomes reckless, realizing there are no consequences when living in a time loop. Then he tries hooking up with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), after studying her likes and dislikes through trial and error. She continuously sees right through his smooth-talking and shuts him down each and every time. Then, hopeless about this never-ending cycle, Phil becomes suicidal, killing himself day after day in different ways, but still waking up the next morning unscathed. After reaching rock bottom, he decides to make the best of his situation and, in turn, becomes a better person because of it.
Murray is perhaps at his comedic best here. He’s not as loose and unhinged as his other roles, and I’m not sure he can afford to be. The premise is so locked in that he’s not given the same kind of unbridled freedom. And that’s a good thing.
Where Groundhog Day falters is in its ending. While Phil has spent decades with Rita, actually falling in love with her, she’s only known him for a few hours total each time. He says he loves her, yet she doesn’t bat an eye when returning the sentiment. Phil has developed into an ideal soulmate for her over the course of 30 years, but the parameters of the story only have Rita developing her character over the course of a few hours—most of which are spent with Phil’s popularity and unrealistic talents rubbed in her face. He’s admittedly changed, but her basis for returning that love can’t possibly rely on her knowing what the audience knows since she has no knowledge of the time loop.
On the outside, director and co-writer Harold Ramis seems to have crafted a deep film, but perhaps Groundhog Day isn’t quite rooted in the level of spirituality it seems like it is, and that bleeds through in the end. Rather than showing Phil get the girl, lock, stock and barrel, the story should have resolved at the beginning stages of their relationship. A new beginning for Phil, if you will. Instead, he gets rewarded with her agreeing to hook up with him after all—a shallow conclusion which also makes no sense to what we’ve learned about her character either. The curse finally seems to end not because he’s changed, but because the pair has a sexual encounter. It’s a flippant resolution to a thought-provoking journey.
Despite the disappointing ending, Groundhog Day has a lot of fun exploring the premise in its entirety. You can truly see the blessing and the curse of the time loop scenario. There’s a sort of magical quality to the movie, unlike other similar stories that depict the main character’s struggle with only the same dark despair. But comedy and depth are never competing here, instead serving as irony for one another. While Phil does become depressed, we know the reality is that he won’t ever die, which alleviates the fear of consequence from the audience, allowing us to easily go along for the ride, curious how Phil will take advantage of his situation and how, if ever, he will get out of it.
Double Feature With:
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)