Fantastic Phil’s Time Adventure

Groundhog Day had its theatrical release in the United States thirty years ago as I write. It stars Bill Murray, Andy MacDowell and was directed by Harold Ramis. It was the last time Ramis and Murray worked together on a film after many collaborations and also marked a change in career direction for both. Although in my review of Lost in Translation I suggested that Wes Anderson’s Rushmore marked the dramatic turn for Murray’s career, it can also be seen within this film. Upon re-watching it recently, it is certainly something of a hybrid and although filmed and released in the early 1990s, it could still almost pass as one from the late 1980s. It was a commercial and critical hit upon release but has since endured and remained a popular film and I consider it the best film both Murray and Ramis have ever done. Considering both began their film careers with crass comedies like Caddyshack and Stripes — this perhaps isn’t so impressive in hindsight.

The film has been endlessly discussed and studied since and as with Blade Runner, I don’t expect to be very original in what follows. It has also been influential in what is known as the time-loop genre and I’ve previously discussed Edge of Tomorrow which has a similar premise though it is a sci-fi/action film.

Don’t drive angry!

Although I was only nine at the time, I do remember the film being advertised and wanting to see it simply because I liked Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. From the advertising, it did look in most ways like a conventional comedy and as mentioned above, it could have easily passed as something released in the 1980s for anyone who didn’t know better. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a misanthropic television weatherman from Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania who is a local celebrity but not as famous or important as he believes he should be. He is sent to the town Punxsutawney to cover the titular tradition that is now known all over the world thanks largely to the legacy of this film. Accompanying him is his producer Rita (MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot).

The tradition of Groundhog Day comes from the belief that if a groundhog comes out of its burrow and sees its shadow, then he will return to his dwelling and winter will continue for another six weeks. The groundhog featured in this film is also named Phil which has the added comedy of further irritating Phil with the townsfolk keen to point out this connection. The day begins with Phil making various unwanted encounters with people including an overly familiar insurance salesman, and a variety of jovial and well-meaning locals who Phil nonetheless dislikes. Rita is a direct contrast to Phil in that she finds joy in everything and loves the town’s festive spirit and folksy manners. I note that I wouldn’t expect the average television producer to be any more endeared by small-town folk than Phil but it works for the film. Larry the cameraman serves as another target for Phil’s repugnance but is just as well-meaning as the townsfolk. As the day progresses, it becomes clear that Phil’s weather forecast was wrong and after wrapping up their coverage, they are prevented from leaving the town by a blizzard and forced to stay until the following morning. Phil however, wakes up the following morning to find he has begun the same day again.

Phil’s reaction to this realisation follows similarly to the popular “five stages of grief”. He is initially in denial which briefly turns to anger. After comes bargaining where he sees a doctor and a psychiatrist and this moves on to depression with the help of some local drunks before finally accepting what has happened. This isn’t a perfect stage-by-stage progression as his depression comes back in a big way when he spends multiple days committing suicide in a variety ways which all result in him waking up yet again to ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny and Cher — a signature of the film which I now associate the song with. 

Particularly after ending one day in a police holding cell and still waking up safe in bed, he begins indulging in sinful living. There is a consistent chronology to the character progression but it is not always clear how much he does in one day or whether there are crossovers with others. He takes a leaf from the irritating insurance salesman Ned who claims to be a forgotten school buddy (and perhaps is?) pulling the same trick on the local (or visiting?) beauty Nancy who he seduces that same day. It is implied that he does the with a number of women before turning his attention to Rita who was already more on his mind while in embrace with Nancy. He is forced to go to impressive lengths to woo Rita in a day and ultimately fails in every attempt. While pursuing her there is a particularly amusing scene with her explaining what she looks for in a man with the incredulous Phil finally responding, “This is a man we’re talking about, right?” Though her expectations for a mate are unrealistically high, Phil has few of the qualities she is looking for. His seduction begins with simply repeating or feigning interest in things she likes but even with the slate wiped clean daily with every misstep; she see’s through his manipulative behaviour as shown in a comical vignette of failures (and slaps) after the more polite female defence mechanisms fall short. As a result of this he begins to become aware of the emptiness and insincerity of his relationships with other people.

Some practical good that does come of this is he begins learning French to impress her as she shared a love of French poetry that the real Phil mocked when first hearing. Rita is the obvious love interest from early on and as well as being a direct contrast to his character, she is also the moral compass of the film. At one point when Phil has decided his circumstance has made him something of a deity, she rebukes his absurd claim, telling him that’s “twelve years of Catholic School talking.” That sounds surprising today but given her age at the time of the film’s release, she probably did go to a Catholic school that was genuinely Catholic. She also indicates a desire to have a family which was far from Phil’s mind at the film’s outset. The director, the writers and presumably most involved in the production were Jewish and the film has otherwise little overt religious aspects though their is a subtext and Ramis has said he was influenced by Buddhist beliefs. 

Religious subtext aside, the film is very much promoting the good, the true and beautiful. As Phil learns French, he also begins to learn ice sculpting and how to play the piano and after a legion of repeat first lessons, achieves some mastery in all. What begins as a few cynical ploys to lead astray a good woman ends up being a mission to be worthy of her. Taking cue of her concern for others, his attention soon turns to helping locals with a variety of problems including a previously ignored old beggar who he feeds and cares for in what turns out to be the man’s last day on Earth. This devotion to help of others, growing ability to create, entertain and share with the community leads to a positive outlook on life and living that ultimately attracts Rita. From her perspective the change would have been as jarring as those who woke up to a smiling Scrooge knocking on their door on Christmas morning — but the audience has seen the change Phil has made over what amounts to thousands of days of effort. I can’t help add here that the influence of A Christmas Carol has a further connection with Murray playing the unlikely convert in a modern take titled Scrooged some years earlier. 

Earlier in the film while Phil was indulging in gluttony, Rita quotes a poem by Walter Scott that aptly describes Phil’s destiny before he became trapped in the time-loop:

The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

There is surely a touch of Ecclesiastes in this verse. By the end of the film, Phil has a zest for life and has demonstrated value to the woman he loves which is shown quite literally in him being sold to her in a charity auction of local bachelors. They fall asleep together and Phil finally wakes up to a new day with the woman he loves sleeping peacefully beside him.

There are a few general observations I want to make about the film in light of the distance of time. One is just how well-dressed and polite everyone is. The men are mostly dressed in suits and the women are in dresses or at least modestly attired. It was during winter but this still jumps out today — this and the hot water running out which I sometimes find unthinkable today. Another is the lack of variety with coffee which now seems funny but back then, the now ubiquitous café culture was yet to spread beyond major cities. An inconsistency seems to be the blizzard that prevented Phil from leaving is totally absent during the evening within the town. Perhaps they meant it was further off as all the scenes at night show cold but otherwise pleasant weather? I also noticed the bartender (without ever saying anything) seems to know what Phil is going through. The bartender sage was already a trope and he seems to be a combination of both that and the “magic negro”. This may not be but I did notice on the re-watch. Lastly, I don’t understand why they show people kissing in the morning before brushing their teeth. This is a minor issue but then perhaps I’m the only one that doesn’t wake up with a mouth smelling of roses.

As great and influential as the film is, it isn’t as original as many would like to think. Having recently read Robinson Crusoe I noted an unmistakable similarity with that characters experience though with an explicitly Christian theme of redemption. There is no time-loop, just the character being trapped in the same place in which the character grows both spiritually and in aptitude. This as well as the aforementioned Dickensian influence. I am not trying to take anything away from the achievement but I have to point out the connections with earlier literature and I’m sure there are more I’m not aware of.

Film critics tend to omit the influences films have had on video games but the time-loop concept has also been used creatively in a number of video games. Indeed, the source material for Edge of Tomorrow based the time-loop concept around the trial and error found in video games. The most notable use of a time-loop as a mechanic in an actual game was The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask which sees the hero having only three days before land he has entered is destroyed. The player is always able to reset to the first day before this happens though — with specific accomplishments retained in each reset for progression. The game also has an extensive side-quest that involves helping the townsfolk with a variety of problems which is similar to what Phil does on his final day in Groundhog Day. There are a number of others but this is the most notable and direct connection.

Finally, the running time is a very neat 90 minutes or so including the credits. I mentioned this recently with Office Space but this also deserves praise as nothing more could be added to the story with another 3o or 60 minutes as so many studios seem to believe today. Surely, it also saves money in production? All in all, a film that holds up thirty years later and is well worth your time whether for the first or one of many times.

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