Phil Connors has this problem. Every year, as Groundhog Day draws near, he feels the bile piling up in his stomach. Every year, it is the same. You go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and watch a bunch of bozos haul an over-fed rodent out of a box and act out a charade about how much more winter there is. And the worst of it is, he knows that next year, he is going to have to do it all again—the whole meaningless round.
Except that this year, 1993, it didn’t happen that way. It was much much worse. Or so it seemed to weatherman Phil Conners. The argument of this post is that his nightmare was just a little riff on his life—the life he was already choosing.
I’m going to skip the plot except for the barest essentials because only people who know the story will have read this far. The movie is based—so it says on the imdb.com website—on a book by Frederick Nietsche called The Gay Science. In it, as in Groundhog Day, a person is trapped in a noticeably small period of time and is doomed to live it over and over. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a meteorologist in nearby Pittsburgh. He and his sweet little producer, Rita, (Andie McDowell) and inept cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) go off to “cover” the emerging groundhog. The next morning, when Phil gets up, he discovers that it is the same day as yesterday—the same weather, the same banter on the radio, the same people walking down the street.
He is horrorstruck. He panics. Then he sees some possibilities, all of them bad. His intimate knowledge of the day, based on endless repetitions of it, enable him to indulge himself in every vice he desires. Sex first; then wealth; then a straightforward seduction of Rita. Everything works except getting Rita into bed. Then he gets sick of it and kills himself several times. Nothing works: the next morning, he wakes up with the same bad jokes being told by the same people on the radio.
There is a flaw in Phil’s system somewhere and it needs to be overcome before he can get on to the next day. There are a lot of candidates for “crucial flaw remedied.” Phil turns, for example, from doing bad deeds to doing good deeds. Maybe that’s it. He finally gets Rita into bed. Maybe that’s it. He learns to play the piano. I think that would be my mother’s favorite. He achieves a much sharper notion of who he has been, finally admitting to Rita that he has been—IS, he says—a jerk.
I’d hate to have to argue against those, especially the piano, but here’s my favorite. In his best moment with Rita, he says, ”Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now… because I love you.” You have to know the movie to know what a step that is. “Whatever happens tomorrow…” is pretty powerful from a man who has been denied and has finally renounced all “tomorrows.” Ditto for “for the rest of my life.” And “because I love you” does not include her loving him. It is not her love for him that has fulfilled him, but his love for her. It is quixotic in the full Don Quixote sense of the word. Phil Connors has accepted living the rest of his life doing the same good deeds for the same people over and over again and loving a woman to whom he has been a jerk as recently as yesterday. Nice work, Phil.
There’s another reason this movie has been on my mind, though. It is that being trapped in that day—forever Groundhog Day—isn’t all that different from the rest of Phil Connors’ life. In the first phase of his enchantment, he is a nasty person using (abusing) today because tomorrow is all he values. But before he was enchanted, he was a nasty person abusing every one of his todays and all the people those todays contained on behalf of an amorphous “tomorrow” whose principal virtue was that it was not “today.”
Phil thought that, as a rising young TV meteorologist, he was going to go to a bigger and better station and have colleagues who were not as mean-spirited as his current ones. As viewers, we know that Phil is going to take his problems with him and that every new station will become a place he wants to leave and every set of colleagues will be inadequate in the one virtue that matters most to Phil—how much they admire him. So Phil isn’t really any more “on an endless treadmill” when he gets trapped in Groundhog Day than he was before. It’s just that the size of the trap is so small—24 hours—that he can see that he is trapped.
And whatever the magic ingredient is—see the list above or compile your own—that enables him to escape from the Groundhog Day trap, it enables him also to escape from the trap he has built for himself in his own life. You could say that the Groundhog Day event was just a vivid illustration of the kind of trap he had built and in escaping from Groundhog Day, he escaped, also, from being the Phil Connors he had been.
It’s a pretty good day’s work.