Friday, February 5, 2010

Groundhog Day and the Meaning of Life

Nearly every Groundhog Day, I make it my business to watch Harold Ramis's immortal 1990s romantic comedy classic of the same name. And every time I see the film, I enjoy it a little bit more.

For the unfortunate few who have not yet had the pleasure, the movie weaves the epic tale of Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray, at his sardonic best) who is ready to sleepwalk through his annual trip to Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania for the town's hokey Groundhog Day festivities. After going through the motions, a snowstorm traps him, his producer Rita (the angelic and ageless Andie Macdowell) and his cameraman (character actor Chris Elliott). The following morning, Phil realizes that he is not only stuck in Punxsutawny, but stuck in the same 24-hour period that he just lived through.

The movie kicks into high gear when Phil starts exploring the options associated with eternally reliving the same day. At first he lives recklessly and exorbitantly--eating whatever he wants, stealing money, breaking laws, killing himself repeatedly, using his situation to creatively pick up women and attempting to manipulatively win Rita's affection.

After that lifestyle drives him to the brink of insanity and despair, however, we watch as sarcastic self-centered Phil begins to melt into sarcastic redeemed Phil. Those cyclical 24 hours--seemingly devoid of consequence by nature of his situation--felt even more inconsequential when spent on self-fulfillment and momentary thrill-seeking.

When Phil begins to use his endless string of days to better himself and the lives of those around him, the gray Punxsutawny winter begins to feel a bit warmer. Phil learns to play piano, read French poetry and carve ice sculptures. Better still, he spends his day(s) running around town on do-gooder "errands" that end up saving lives, flat tires and marriages.

Phil's fundamental attitude on life has shifted and--as in any romantic comedy worth its salt--this helps him win the woman of his dreams. To me, at least, this doesn't come across as unrealistic. While Rita correctly wrote Phil off as a jerk on February 1, he is a refreshingly changed man on February 2.

When I've watched this movie in the past, I've always taken it at face value: Phil had all the time in the world to improve himself and finally broke the spell when he learned to spend his life putting others before himself. In learning to do that, he got what he wanted all along.

But after this viewing I realized two things:
1. Groundhog Day is a sheer masterpiece and my vote for best romantic comedy of the 1990s. Sorry, Tom Hanks.

2. Phil isn't the only one with lots of time to improve himself. We may not be forced to repeat the same 24-hour period, but a lot of us live as if we are. The calendar moves forward, but our perspective remains unchanged.

How many days will you spend being annoyed by encounters with Ned Ryerson? How much time will you waste trying to convince that girl she's the one for you? How many Groundhog Days must pass before you realize that most of your all-encompassing concerns, needs and worries are about as important as whether or not Punxsutawny Phil sees his shadow?

I'm asking myself these questions right now. And it's time to start using my time a bit more wisely. This could be the end of a very long day.


Anonymous said...

This is a debate that could go on and get very interesting.

Danny Rubin said...

I love stumbling on these wonderful, thoughtful postings, all stimulated by my little movie! For anybody who is interested in more of this kind of thing, you may want to check out my new eBook: How To Write Groundhog Day.
Here's the website:

In any case, I loved reading this perspective. Thanks.