I’m always excited when I find another person who truly gets Groundhog Day; similarly, I am annoyed when someone doesn’t understand the pure genius of it. Groundhog Day should only have two reactions: “Best inspirational movie ever made!” Or “I love that movie; it was hysterical.” Nothing less than that is acceptable in my eyes. Unfortunately, I get lukewarm reactions, or the question: “Really? Groundhog Day?” So, when I find someone who believes it is akin to a 12-step group for life, I feel like I have made a soul-connection with a kindred spirit.
I know. There are other outstanding, award-winning, inspirational movies that have greater acclaim than Groundhog Day; movies like Braveheart, Dead Poet Society, and Good Will Hunting are serious movies, about serious topics, delivered with intensity about characteristics we all want to emulate. Those movies are a few of my favorites, but they don’t beat Groundhog Day. How can I justify that? Simple: It is everything I stand for and want to teach my children and students about life, all bundled up in a hilarious 90 minute comedy. How can a comedy accomplish such a feat? That’s exactly my point.
Everything from the brilliant writing to the spot-on acting to the visionary directing creates the greatest life-lesson I have ever learned: I will metaphorically live the same day over and over again if I don’t find a way to positively contribute to society.
As Phil Connors illustrates so perfectly, we will never improve our lives by being selfish and manipulating people. That choice will contribute to the same-shit-different-day scenario. We can only improve our lives by improving ourselves in such a way that we help others, which then improves us as well as the quality of the lives around us.
What other movie has been able to accomplish that?
If you are still not convinced, let me take you through the plot structure of the movie, addressing the life-changing lessons as they occur.
The movie opens with Phil Connors, an egotistical weather man, reporting the weather. He believes he is a much bigger star than he actually is. He can’t stand that he has to drive to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania from Pittsburg to cover the Groundhog Day celebration . . . again. He is rude to his colleagues; no one seems to like Phil, but they tolerate him. The new producer, Rita, is a kind-hearted woman who Phil slightly smiles at, but sarcastically claims, “She’s fun, but not my kind of fun.” Phil presents the idea that he’s too good for Rita. But in reality, Phil knows that a man like him could never get a woman like Rita; she is too kind and self-confident to fall for his lies.
As Phil, Rita, and Larry (the cameraman) are driving to Punxsutawney, Phil reveals that he is afraid that “Somebody is going to see [him] interviewing a groundhog and think [he doesn’t] have a future,” which, by the way, is a beautiful, ironic foreshadowing to what is about to happen: His interview with the groundhog is his only future for a very long time.
Phil, once again, displays his arrogance at the hotel; he objects to the lodgings because they were not up to Phil’s standards. Larry calls him a “Prima Donna.” Rita tells Phil she booked him at a lovely bed & breakfast. Phil is shocked but happily replies,
“You know, I think this is one of the traits of a really good producer. Keep the talent happy.”
“Did he actually call himself the talent?” (Larry)
Like most people, Phil wants other people to believe he is important; for a brief moment he thinks he has succeeded, until Larry knocks Phil off the self-created pedestal.
The next day Phil wakes up to Sonny & Cher’s classic song “I Got You Babe.” He mocks the DJs, double-talks the kind guest, and passive-aggressively insults the elderly owner of the bed & breakfast: “Did you want to talk about the weather or were you just making chit chat?” When she asks about his checking out, Phil responds, “Chance of departure today, 100%.” Phil does not bother to hide his contempt for the town or its people.
The rest of the day doesn’t go much better. He ignores a homeless man; he refuses to engage with Ned Ryerson. He does a horrible job reporting on the groundhog. The high-lights of the day for the viewers are when Karma seems to get its revenge on Phil: He steps into an icy puddle; they try to leave Punxsutawney only to return because of the storm Phil said would not happen; he tries to take a hot shower, but there is only cold water. We chuckle because Phil gets what he deserves, a horrible day in Punxsutawney.
The exposition to Phil’s character is perfect. He is arrogant, rude, and cynical, and no matter how hard he tries to get respect, no one takes Phil seriously. As viewers, we don’t like him, nor should we. He is the guy we all love to hate and laugh at when he gets hit with the Karma stick. We don’t let ourselves see that Phil is merely covering up his insecurities with sarcasm and aloofness.
The rising action begins the next day when Phil starts the time loop; it should be February 3, but the day begins exactly the same as the previous day: The same song plays; he runs into the same kind guest; the owner asks the same questions. Phil starts to wonder if everyone is crazy or if he is having déjà vu. He tells the owner, “I’d say the chance of departure is 80%, 75-80.” When he questions Rita about the date, Rita thinks he’s drunk. Phil says, “Drunk’s more fun.”
When he tries to get an emergency line, they tell him to try tomorrow. He questions them, “What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” I don’t know why, but that line makes me laugh really hard every time.
He realizes that he repeated February 2, but no one else experienced the time loop. He breaks a pencil and puts it by the radio. The next day, 6 am hits and the song plays again: “Then put your little hand in mine, ’cause there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb. Babe. I got you babe.” The pencil has returned to its unbroken state.
Phil now realizes the time loop is not a fluke. I love the sequences that follow this realization because I think we would all be tempted to follow in Phil’s footsteps, or at least daydream about how reckless we would be if we were presented with the same situation.
This time loop serves as the inciting action that activates Phil’s hedonistic choices, beautifully displayed in the diner while he eats donuts, drinks coffee out of the carafe, and smokes cigarettes. He decides he is “a god. Not the God…[he] doesn’t think.” His arrogance perpetuates this perception. He indulges in all pleasures because “If there were no tomorrow, there’d be no consequences. We could do whatever we wanted.”
After a number of superficial conquests, Phil sets his sights on Rita. He works hard to discover all of her likes and dislikes in order to manipulate Rita’s affection. It ends bitterly unsatisfactory when Rita slaps his face over and over again finally to exclaim, “I could never love anyone like you, Phil, because you’ll never love anyone but yourself.” To this, Phil responds with his first truthful statement in the movie: “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.” It is at this moment that we finally understand Phil; his arrogance, his manipulation, his lies were all a cover-up for an insecure man who was merely trying to find something outside of himself that would make him feel valuable.
Failing to acquire Rita’s love, which would mean he was lovable, sends Phil into a suicidal tailspin: “I’ll give you a winter prediction. It’s going to be cold. It’s going to be gray. And it’s going to last you for the rest of your life.” His depression is palpable. Phil decides to kill himself and the groundhog, believing it will end the time loop. He says goodbye to Rita: “I’ve come to the end of me, Rita. There’s no way out now.” This begins the difficult suicide scenes. His utter desolation painfully displays across the screen. We think Phil will be a tragic hero; however, it is a false climax and resolution. Phil wakes up every morning at 6 am to the same song.
Watching him commit suicide over and over again shifts our emotional attachment to Phil. We no longer hate him; we now feel sorry for his despondency and want him to find a way to heal his pain.
He finally reaches out to Rita with the truth: “I wake up every day right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always February 2nd, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Sadly, Phil reveals that he has become only a shell of a man: “It doesn’t make any difference. I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” His truthfulness, even though Rita doesn’t believe him, strikes a chord with Rita and us. She decides to spend the day and night with Phil to see what happens. Close to midnight, she states a simple truth that proves to be the true turning point of the story for Phil: “Well, sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don’t know Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.” He responds with humor, “Gosh you’re an upbeat lady.” But it resonates. Is life really about how a person chooses to look at it?
Phil finally has the courage to tell Rita how he feels about her, albeit while she is sleeping:
“What I wanted to say was, I think you’re the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never seen anyone that’s nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you something happened to me. I never told you, but…I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.”
There is nothing more moving than a man who admits he needs and wants to become a better person. We can all identify in some respect to the emptiness of the pleasure principle or the despondency of the same-shit-different-day futility. We all want to leave the emptiness behind, but how? The beauty of this movie is that it answers that question. We watch Phil become that better man–not by having someone fix him, but by making choices to fix and improve himself.
At 6 am, Phil wakes up alone again, but his awakening to a new life is obvious as soon as he opens his eyes. We see it acted out when he hands over all his money to the homeless man. Later that night, Phil sees him again, but struggling to walk. Phil brings him to the hospital where the old man dies. He demands to see his charts to know the cause of death. The nurse replies, “Sometimes people just die.” Phil says, “Not today.” My heart breaks as Phil’s compassion overflows for this man. He attempts to save the old man’s life in every conceivable way, but he fails each time. Instead of giving up, Phil puts his compassionate energy into making a positive difference with the people he can help.
The futility of life becomes a distant memory for Phil and us. I always ask myself at this point, who can I help today? How can I make a difference in someone’s life? When a movie helps us examine our own lives, it is a powerful inspirational tool, not just entertainment.
The last time loop sequence shows how Phil takes advantage of the newly realized gift of time he has received. He learns to play the piano, to ice-sculpt, and to speak French. His new purpose and vision of life is presented in his coverage of the groundhog ceremony: “Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life….I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
Although Rita is still the woman he loves, he sees his place in the community as his greater purpose. She asks him, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” He responds with “I’d love to. Can I have a rain check? I have some errands I have to run.” What should have been the attainment of his goal, Rita seeking his company, is only a benefit to his new life. Phil, asking for a rain check, shows he now has respect for himself and his purpose in life. Phil doesn’t need approval from anyone else; he, and he alone, completed himself.
Of all his “errands” my favorite is when he catches the little boy falling out of a tree. Phil hurts his back and the child runs away: “What do you say, you little brat? You have never thanked me! I’ll see you tomorrow.” This one errand shows Phil’s growth the most. The fact that he would do it all again for a child who is ungrateful shows his character shift from selfish arrogance to self-fulfillment: His reward is in the act itself, not in the praise.
By the end of the day Phil has helped just about everyone in the community. He has won Rita’s love because he is now a good man who believes in himself. We know the transformation is complete, the climax of the story, when he accepts his life as it is, with or without the time loop: “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.” True happiness comes from unconditional acceptance of the path we are on and sharing that acceptance with others.
Unbelievably, the next morning the song plays again: “I got you babe.” But this time, Rita’s hand turns off the radio. Phil is in shock: “Something is different.” Rita wonders, “Good or bad?” Phil responds, “Anything different is good. But this could be real good.” He realizes that the time loop has ended. He has finally figured out how to move forward: “Do you know what today is? Today is tomorrow. It happened. You’re here.” We anticipate that Phil’s resolution will fill his days with happiness.
His final comment is my favorite: “It was the end of a very long day. Is there anything I can do for you today?” After a lifetime of wanting other people to do things for him, he realizes that doing things for other people brings meaning to his life. We know he will continue to live his life that way because now he wants to take care of Rita’s needs.
In our current world of entitlement and self-gratification, we need Groundhog Day now more than ever. In the words of Danny Rubin, the brilliant mind behind the script, the best lesson of the movie is this:
The absolutely worst day of Phil’s life took place under the exact same conditions as the absolutely best day of Phil’s life. The best day and the worst day were the same day. In fact, a whole universe of experiences proved to be possible on this single day. The only difference was Phil himself, what he noticed, how he interpreted his surroundings, and what he chose to do.
This is an extremely empowering message. It suggests that, like Phil, we need not be the victims of our own lives, and that the power to change our fate, to change our experience of a single day, rests within ourselves. No matter what cycle we are stuck inside, the power to escape is already present within us. . . .
The world changed because Phil changed. That means that the difference to us between a bad day and a good day may not be the day, but may be the way we approach the day. (How To Write Groundhog Day)
I hope I have helped you understand why Groundhog Day is my favorite movie. May it empower you to approach each day from this point on with a sense of joy and purpose.