Growing Up Groundhog: The Horror and Fantasy of Groundhog Day

Comedy Features groundhog day

In Harold Ramis’ 1993 classic Groundhog Day, misanthropic weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives February 2nd over and over again for a total of 36 onscreen days. One enterprising fan, however, determined that Phil must spend at least a decade trapped in Punxsutawney purgatory if he truly does learn how to speak French, play jazz piano, and ice sculpt before advancing to February 3rd—a conclusion that was later confirmed by Ramis himself.

My own relationship to Groundhog Day is almost as recursive as the film itself. I have seen the movie at least 36 times over the last two decades, which means—carry the one—that I have watched Phil redo February 2nd over 1,000 times across a span of nearly four centuries of elapsed time. Near the end of the movie, Phil sculpts a beautiful ice replica of his producer-turned-paramour Rita (Andie MacDowell) and tells her, “I know your face so well, I could have done it with my eyes closed.” Give me a man, a woman, a stuffed groundhog, and a camcorder, and I could probably recreate Groundhog Day from memory, too.

Looking back now, I would rather grow up with Groundhog Day than any other 90s comedy. Some people say they learned everything they needed to know about life from kindergarten but when I was still young enough to have a nap time, I learned about life from that movie in much the same way that Phil did: through mind-numbing repetition. Groundhog Day didn’t transform me into a beacon of altruism. It doesn’t resonate with me on a spiritual or religious level and I could honestly care less about its Nietzschean undertones. For me, Groundhog Day has been a simple crash course in the reality of unhappiness and a study in contrasts about the passage of time.

Groundhog Day is a dark film to watch for the first time at the age of six, let alone to watch repeatedly and almost obsessively throughout one’s childhood. For a comedy, it sure contains an awful lot of suicide. Phil takes his own life a total of four times onscreen, most memorably by driving a truck into a rock quarry with the eponymous groundhog perched on his lap. He later informs Rita that he has been “stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung … and burned” during his time in Punxsutawney as well. In the year 1993, I was laughing at such lighthearted fare as Robin Williams masquerading as a woman, Kevin Kline pretending to be president, and Jamaican sprinters passing themselves off as a bobsled team. I’m not sure I was fully prepared to metabolize the existential horror of a sentence like, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore” or to weather a grim pronouncement like, “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”

But the true horror of Groundhog Day doesn’t stem from Phil’s overt acts of self-harm so much as it does from the far more insidious undercurrent of his quotidian misery. In my starry-eyed, two-parent, middle-class, picket-fence childhood, Groundhog Day was my first sense that unhappiness was not just possible but completely unremarkable. It provided an early glimpse into a world where Phil Connors’ mixture of arrogance and cynicism was both instantly recognizable to and dismissed by his co-workers as a distinct type: “Prima donna.” At one point, Rita tells Phil that he’s impossible to love because he only loves himself and he replies, stunned, “I don’t even like myself!” The truth is that both of them are right: Phil’s inflated self-importance is just barely sublimated self-loathing. His is not the pastiche of evil that Bill Murray embodies as Frank Cross in Scrooged. Nor is Phil the secretly lovable sad sack of the modern bro comedy. No, Phil is a terrifyingly real asshole. And at an age when a concept like self-esteem is merely an abstraction and the Golden Rule still seems ironclad, it’s the everyday quality of Phil’s depravity that is most disconcerting.

It’s precisely this uncanny authenticity of Phil’s awfulness, too, that makes his transformation at the end of Groundhog Day feel earned. By contrast, Bill Murray’s televised monologue about the meaning of Christmas at the end of Scrooged—which Roger Ebert compared to an ”>“on-screen breakdown”—seems completely outside of the character’s range. But when I was a kid, I didn’t want Phil to change. The movie was deliciously cathartic when he was shoving angel food cake into his mouth with abandon or loudly decrying the premise of the Groundhog Day festival in front of the entire town: “A thousand people freezing their butts off, waiting to worship a rat.” Once he started changing flat tires, rescuing weddings, and performing the Heimlich, the movie lost its wanton, manic glee.

But once I reached that age when you wish you had more time to work on yourself, Groundhog Day became a very different movie. The acceleration of time that naturally accompanies adulthood takes its toll and Phil’s plight never feels the same again. I was conversational in Mandarin when I was in college but I’ve forgotten almost all of it by now. I used to play the guitar but I don’t have the time to keep up with it anymore. I wrote my partner love letters when we were first dating but these days I spend more time filling out paperwork than scribing sweet nothings. If I could work past the bizarre temporal claustrophobia of being stuck in one day for a decade, I’d love to work on these projects alone before picking up again right where I left off.

Anyone who has seen Groundhog Day as much as I have has their own theory about which of Phil’s actions ends the time loop. For some, it’s the tender moment after he sculpts Rita in which he resigns himself to the joys of the present: “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now because I love you.” But for me, it’s the night before when Rita falls asleep nestled up against Phil and he stays awake, reading Poems for Every Mood, hungry to know more about the world and to feel more deeply. That’s the moment when you can tell that Phil finally sees time as a gift rather than a prison.

When I was younger, the conceit of Groundhog Day seemed more befitting a horror movie than a comedy. But looking back, its classification as a fantasy comedy has an unexpected melancholic twinge. Phil has the luxury of reinventing himself while time stands still. The rest of us have to do it one day at a time. Life outside of fiction is hardly Miami Beach. Being able to rewind it would be a fantasy indeed.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.

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