If you’ve visited Paste’s list of the best feel-good movies on Netflix, or any of the similar lists no doubt being churned out by the internet publishing content machine as we all remain huddled in place during the ongoing coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, you’re likely to have spotted the presence of Groundhog Day. The 1993 Harold Ramis/Bill Murray comedic fantasy has attained the kind of mythic, permanent pop cultural status reserved for few films, seeming to grow in public esteem on an exponential, generational basis. What was only a modestly successful film at the box office in the era of Generation X became acknowledged as a classic by the time Millennials came of age, and in the streaming era of Gen Z the film has been more widely available and lauded than ever. It’s only natural it make appearances on lists of films you could watch to take your mind off the current cultural calamity.
Here’s the thing, though: Groundhog Day isn’t really the escapist fantasy one should be turning to for distraction from the pandemic headlines. Rather, it’s a truly apropos evocation of the exact same mental and emotional challenges that many of us are facing right now. It’s a movie that reflects the zeitgeist of our unexpected era of quarantine, even if it was never meant to do so. In fact, you could call Groundhog Day the ultimate quarantine movie.
Phil Connors, Hedonism and the Punxsutawney Quarantine
Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is never physically confined in Groundhog Day, except in the sense that he can’t escape the town because the approaching snowstorm shuts down all the interstates leading away from it. He is, however, confined from almost any other perspective you could adopt to view his situation. His resources are limited to whatever he can access in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as are his social interactions. Want to physically be in the presence of someone not in that town? Too bad, not going to happen. The entire town becomes his quarantine zone, which perhaps doesn’t sound too bad at first … but wait until you’ve been living the same day there for more than 30 years, which is what the math seems to suggest. That mental and spiritual confinement is ultimately his greatest hurdle.
Phil’s first instinct when digesting this new normal, after the initial wave of panic, is toward hedonism and living without consequences—juvenile responses, because Phil is a very emotionally immature, self-centered man. He experiences what you might describe as a powerful rush of endorphins, knowing he can live outside “their rules” and effectively do whatever he wants, whether it’s breaking the law, unethically taking advantage of people or simply eating massive amounts of greasy diner food. He begins to think that perhaps his circumstances aren’t a curse; they’re a boon for him to live like a king and never have to worry about others again.
I know that this is certainly reflective of how my wife and I felt during early moments of our current quarantine state. There’s the brief initial period of worry and panic as the structures of everyday life are upended, but that active worry quickly gives way to an almost giddy sense of “well, I guess we’re staying home, so we can sort of do whatever we want, right?” The desire for escapism in this situation is strong, and so we too are all likely to turn to hedonism. If you’re trapped at home, how have you been spending your days? Playing videogames for hours on end, perhaps? Binging those TV sitcoms you always wanted to plow through? Eating copious amounts of junk food and takeout? Walking around, perpetually in your underwear? It can all make it easier to ignore the outside world, at least for a while.
A lifestyle of casual hedonism, however, has a tendency to ultimately lead to spiritual emptiness. For Phil in Groundhog’s Day, it doesn’t take him long to exhaust the resources and experiences he initially wants to have in Punxsutawney, leaving him despondent and eventually suicidal. After all, he’s seen literally everything there is to see on TV that day, as illustrated by the Jeopardy game where he knows every answer. He’s apparently seen the one movie in the local theater on 100 different occasions. He’s casually slept his way around with the local women, and has grown to resent not only them, but his own base instincts. He’s not just bored; he’s painfully unfulfilled. At first, he channels that intense energy into courting Rita, but when it becomes clear he’s not going to succeed he finally bottoms out, accepting that he needs to find new meaning in his quarantined life.
When gratification is no longer gratifying.
Accepting Responsibility for What We Can Control
The same is likely true of many of us quarantined souls living through this pandemic, after we breeze through the initial “three-day weekend, woo!” period of casual hedonism. There are only so many episodes of Friends or so many hours of Animal Crossing that one can use to occupy the mind before you begin to crave more substantive diversions. And for a lot of us, the thing we crave most is to break the quarantine—a return to normalcy that comes with mass congregations in public areas, which is the one thing we can’t responsibly have.
Groundhog Day speaks to that kind of longing, but also to the growth of conscience that can happen in a person when they begin to consider not only their own longing, but the needs of others. For Phil, when he gives up on tricking Rita into loving him, it opens up a new avenue of pursuits that can generally be grouped into “personal betterment.” He becomes a more well-rounded person by developing interests he never possessed before, and simultaneously begins to take an interest in the people around him, shedding his self-centered outlook while developing empathy for the residents of Punxsutawney. He begins to think of the people around him as people, whether they’re the diner staff, or the bowling alley barflies, or the ailing homeless man. When Phil comes across that man and attempts to save him over several days, failing each time, he learns both that there are some things outside of his ability to affect, and that it’s all the more important to act on what he can change. He has finally accepted a responsibility to others.
And once he has accepted that responsibility, Phil knows there’s no way he can go back to the man he was. Any day could theoretically be the “last” day of his repeating quarantine, even if that must seem incredibly unlikely when you’re 30 years into such a phenomenon. But Phil never becomes jaded with his daily tasks to help those around him—rather, he finds simple joys in them and carries on with the knowledge that if the day ever suddenly (and finally) flips from Feb. 2 to Feb. 3, he doesn’t want that day to be the one time he failed to catch the kid falling out of the tree, or didn’t save the mayor from choking to death. If he failed in that way, it would simply invalidate all the previous times he performed those services—all the personal growth would have been for nothing.
In this moment, it feels like we too need to take a page from Phil’s book, or perhaps more accurately take a page from the script for Groundhog Day. This is a time for that same spirit of personal betterment. Have an old instrument locked away that you used to play? Get it out and tune it up. Better yet, try out a new hobby you can do at home. Explore some interests that never appealed to you before. Consider how others are weathering the same crisis, and develop empathy for them. Realize that your need for normalcy will never trump the need for saving the lives of others.
And finally, like Phil, where we end up is the need to accept personal responsibility for what we’re able to control at this time. None of us are likely to possess the ability to single-handedly make a large impact in a concept so vast as “flattening the curve,” but we can each recognize our role in helping to mitigate the spread of a dangerous pandemic. Extreme measures of social distancing can make us feel like we’re trapped in a Groundhog Day-like scenario wherein every day feels like the same thing over and over, but it’s our collective responsibility to take that burden on ourselves at this point. In the same way that it would be a betrayal of his new ideals if Phil stopped catching the kid falling out of that tree, it’s a betrayal if we give in to our restlessness in quarantine and start exposing ourselves to others again too soon, potentially leading to a resurgence in the virus. Like Phil, we need to stay the course, or the whole ordeal could have been for nothing.
Bill Murray’s time loop finally closes, ushering in an era of new freedoms and possibilities, but the lessons he learned in the experience remain with him. We should all hope that when it comes to the era of coronavirus, we can eventually say the same.
And in the meantime, Groundhog Day is streaming on Netflix, if you feel so inclined.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre movie geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.