Sadly Going Around Again

Groundhog Day

Well, it’s February 2nd and that means a rodent will come out of the ground, look around, decide “fuck this, it’s too cold,” and go back into his den for six more weeks of Winter. It’s a silly ritual predicated on the prognosticating powers of a weird little dirt marmot. And yet, every year, people get into the spirit of it and think, somehow, this mud weevil can somehow tell us if Winter will be harsh or kind. He can’t, we all know he can’t, but we all, for some reason, go along with it because it’s tradition and we have to obey the many dictates of tradition.

Also tradition: watching Groundhog Day every year. It’s like watching Die HardThe 1980s were famous for the bombastic action films released during the decade. Featuring big burly men fighting other big burly men, often with more guns, bombs, and explosions than appear in Michael Bay's wildest dreams, the action films of the decade were heavy on spectacle, short on realism. And then came a little film called Die Hard that flipped the entire action genre on its head. every Christmas or 1776 every July 4th. These are traditions baked into the holidays, things we did with our families that we then pass on to the next generation, and they can pass onto the next, without anyone ever wondering, “why are we watching Bill Murry go through the same events, over and over until he finally learns a lesson?” We’re stuck in our own loop of time, going through the same motion every year, watching Murray’s Phil Connors once again suffer his own kind of Hell and euphoria all wrapped up in a 90-minute package. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we’ll always do.

Of course, we do it because it’s fun. Groundhog Day, released all the way back in 1993 (and the fashion choices in this film absolutely do emphasize that), is still going as a cultural touchstone because the film works. It’s a fun, often times light, comedy about a guy stuck in a time loop (not of his own devising), who can’t escape and, in the end, has to embrace his own looping immortality because, otherwise, he’d go insane (and there would be no benefit to going insane because he’d still be stuck there, gibbering like a mad man). It’s also a cultural point for a genre, showing everyone a prime example of time loop stories so that, any time someone wants to reference it in the future they just have to say, “you know, like Groundhog Day.” And everyone knows it because the movie is fun and everyone has seen it.

But is it a fun story? From the perspective we see, Phil goes through a lot of darkness to get to his euphoria. Sure, at the beginning, once he realizes what’s going on and comes to embrace it, he has fun. He dates a lot of women (who never even remember him the next time around), he steals a lot of money, he does dangerous things, and it’s all because he can and there would never be consequences. If you can’t die (which he soon learns he can’t) then what does it matter if he does dumb things? As per the bounds of the story, which sees Phil waking up everyday at 6:00 AM to go through the events of February 2nd all over again, any time he dies he’s right back in his bed the next loop, whether he wants to be or not.

That leads us to the darkness of it, though. Once Phil learns he can’t escape, and he’s had his fun, the dreary drudgery of an eternal, looping life gets to him. He has no escape, he’s trapped in amber with no way out. So he tries to kill himself, over and over again, looking for that one way that might actually stick. It never happens. Nothing he does around town has any lasting changes. He’s stuck there, unable to do anything to anyone around him or end his torment and find his sweet release. That’s not the lesson he has to learn.

His lesson is to make himself a better person in Punxsutawney, PA, coming to embrace the festivities of the annual celebration that he was poo-pooing on early in the film, and, in turn, learn to love the town as well. It’s his town, the place he’s existed in for months, years, maybe even millenia (depending on whether you take the original script as gospel as it indicated he was trapped in the town for ten thousand years). This is a grand moment for Phil as it means he’s become his best self, his truest self, and the version that he can then present to the woman of his dreams: Rita (Andie MacDowell).

That, of course, turns the film into a romantic comedy, with Phil realizing he wants Rita, and doing whatever he can to learn about her and win her over. Naturally, it’s when he stops trying and just acts like himself (the version of himself that he’s spent decades in the town perfecting via piano lessons, ice sculpture lesson, learning the French language, memorizing poetry, etc.) that she finally sees him and decides she can love him back. It’s a big moment for Phil since he’s spent so much of his time in this town, looping over and over again, trying to find a way to win her heart. It’s been thousands of years, so when he finally gets her it’s a moment of celebration.

But that is also the darkest moment of the film when you think about it. Phil has spent so long in the town, learning the events of the day, becoming a god among the people as he works to solve every issue, save every person, right every wrong, that once he’s no longer in a single slice of a day, no longer in that loop, won’t he go insane? Think about it: Phil was immortal, omniscient, and able to never worry because there was always another looped day for him to use. Now he doesn’t have that safety. No immortality. Not knowing what will come next. No safety. He’s suddenly like everyone else which, if it really was ten thousand years he was in that town, would be shattering for his fragile mind.

We’re also supposed to celebrate that Rita gets with Phil because he spent so long trying to win her. But for her she’s only known him a couple of days, tops. She wins him at a charity auction, yes, but that’s a one night thing. Suddenly she’s with a guy who spent longer than the whole of the history of human civilization trying to woo her. He’s as deeply committed as any guy can be and she bought a dude for a fling. What is that relationship going to be like? He knows everything about her and she knows nothing. He’s more of a stalker than a lover, from her perspective, and that cannot end well.

And then what happens to Phil. With no safety net, a woman that might just dump him on the third day she’s known him, and his obsession with the town growing as large as it can, that man is going to go insane. He’s going to try and find ways to get his loop back. There’s absolutely nothing else he can do. He wants to be in this town forever. It was his home. Once Rita leaves and his world crumbles he’ll go to larger and larger extremes until he finally either gets the loop again or dies, and I think the latter is more likely. He’ll end up committed somewhere and will repeatedly try to take his own life and get his loop going, but it won’t happen. The loop was a message from the universe that he could be better. It wasn’t the town, or the groundhog, as those were incidental. It was just himself. But he learned his lessons and did the change. Would he really loop again? No, probably not.

So in the end Groundhog Day is the story of a man who goes to a town he hates, gets stuck in a time loop, goes insane, becomes their god, suddenly gets out of the loop and then, after the credits roll, goes insane again, all before taking his own life. It’s a tragedy, we just don’t know it. It is funny in the moment, and it’s one of Bill Murray’s best films, but it’s also a very dark film that leaves all its implications about what comes next off the page, and the screen, so we don’t have to think about it. But after thirty years thinking about this ending is all we can do and, man, it’s dark as fuck.