There’s hidden meaning in this Bill Murray movie-turned-classic.
Bill Murray as Phil Connors, Andie MacDowell as Rita in Groundhog Day, 1993. Columbia Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
Groundhog Day was greeted warmly, if not rapturously, when it was released in 1993. It earned a solid $70 million, and critics said that it was a fun-but-unremarkable Bill Murray comedy. Even the Washington Post’s critic Desson Howe, who said the flick was “pretty good,” added that “Groundhog will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress.”
But in 2006, Groundhog Day was designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress. This seemingly flyweight comedy—the last pairing of Murray and director Harold Ramis (who acted with Murray in Ghostbusters, and died in 2014)—is now recognized as a hands-down comedy classic. And do you know what else? It’s maybe the most spiritual comedy you’ll ever see.
The premise is this: Self-centered TV weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) travels with his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell) and sarcastic cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) to Punxsutawney, PA., for Groundhog Day, where they’ll watch groundhog Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow (or not). Alas, Phil (the weatherman, not the groundhog) hates Punxsatawney. He hates everything about it, from its rundown hotel to its local yokels. And he especially hates Groundhog Day. For Phil, February 3 can’t come soon enough.
Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot in Groundhog Day, 1993. Columbia Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
But Feb. 3 doesn’t come. When Phil wakes up the next morning, it’s still Groundhog Day. It happens the next morning, too. And the next. He’s caught in a time loop, and he can’t figure out how to break the cycle.
Buddhists embrace Groundhog Day with a particular relish: Phil’s endless Groundhog Days reminds them of reincarnation, where we’re all locked in an endless cycle of death and rebirth until we get it right. But Christians can find plenty to hug here, too. Many Catholics believe that Phil’s endless day looks a lot like purgatory.
For me, the power of the movie comes from Phil’s opportunity to delve into one of life’s biggest questions: What the heck are we here for, anyway? What is the meaning of life? Or, more to the point, what gives life meaning?
On Groundhog Day, Phil goes through three distinct phases:
Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we start all over
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Phil asks a drinking buddy.
The answer is obvious—or at least it is without any spiritual underpinning. What would you do? Anything you want.
That evening, Phil begins his experiment in Epicureanism, leading police on a wild chase through town. Over the following days, he crams his pie-hole with cake and bacon. (No need to worry about cholesterol, right?) He robs armored trucks and buys a Mercedes. He seduces beautiful women and, eventually, embarks on a quest to bed his beautiful producer, Rita.
This is where fulfillment lies, Phil believes. He tries to fill eternity with the fleeting pleasures of the sensate. And for a while, he seems to have a blast.
But love and meaning escape him. Rita is stubbornly resistant to Phil’s charms, and each day ends with a slap to the face. Endless days of eating and endless nights of boozing grow repetitive. And what might’ve seemed like a dream existence grows into the stuff of nightmare.
One morning, we see Phil in bed, staring at the ceiling. He parrots the same banter he’s heard on the radio for countless mornings with bitter pathos.
“OK, campers, rise and shine,” he says. “And don’t forget your booties because it’s cold out there today. It’s cold out there every day.”
Just kill me already
Phil doesn’t find meaning in life’s sensate pleasures. Which means—again, to someone without spiritual grounding—that life must thus be meaningless. He slips from Epicureanism to nihilism, and he spends dozens of Groundhog Days simply trying to off himself.
He drives off a cliff. No dice. He electrocutes himself in a bathtub. Nope. He leaps from a church tower. But no matter what he does, the next morning he’s fit as a fiddle.
Finally, in desperation, he confesses all to Rita. “I’ve killed myself so many times I don’t even exist anymore,” he tells her.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Sometimes, the only thing that’ll force us to make needed changes in our lives is to hit rock bottom. Talk with anyone who has a powerful story to tell, and often they’ll say that the worst day of their life was the catalyst that turned them around. We need to lose hope to find it again. We need to be shown how weak we are before we can trust in the strength of God.
Later that night, as Rita dozes off, Phil makes another confession. “You’re the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve met in my life,” he tells her. “I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.”
The next day, for the first time in a long time, Phil wakes up with something like hope. Perhaps he sees in Rita a purpose that he’s never had—a purpose to care about, and care for, others. Perhaps it’s a sudden desire to become a better person, the sort of person who just might deserve someone like Rita. Whatever the reason, Phil seems set on making Groundhog Day the best day ever—not for him, but for everybody else.
Finding meaning in every minute
Phil becomes Punxsutawney’s own good Samaritan. When a kid falls out of a tree, he’s right there to catch him. When a tire goes flat, he’s at the curb with a new tire and jack. In one of the movie’s most poignant moments, he tries to save an old, homeless man again and again.
“For it is in giving that we receive,” St. Francis once said, and Phil finds it to be true.
As another Groundhog Day comes to a close, Phil and Rita spend an evening together, Rita marveling at the depths of this man. And Phil—despite having lived countless days in an endless cycle—finds himself in a strange state of mind: He’s happy.
“No matter what happens, I’m happy right now,” he tells her. “Because I love you.”
Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, 1993. Columbia Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
In that moment, something seems to change. In that moment, Phil is grateful.
“Want to see heaven on earth?” a missionary recently told me. “Be thankful for today.” So simple it is, so true. Be thankful for the gifts God has given you. Be thankful for the trials, too, for it’s through them that we learn and grow. Be thankful, she said.
At the end of Groundhog Day, Phil learns to be thankful, even for an endless day. And in his gratitude, the cycle breaks. His time in purgatory is over.
I think most of us sometimes live as though we’re in our own Groundhog Days. We lose ourselves in the monotony of a workweek, or in sensate pleasures. We forget what’s important. We ask ourselves what we’re supposed to do with our lives even when the answer is right in front of our faces. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians.
It’s so easy to forget. It’s nice we have a pretty good movie to remind us.
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