Groundhog Day is a film about vice, despair, and damnation. And so it is also a film about virtue, grace, and salvation.
Oh no he’s going to Christianize a perfectly good movie.
Yes, reader. That is exactly what I am going to do. But hear me out! Groundhog Day itself never addresses the reason for Phil Connors’s purgatorial interlude. This may seem simple, but it is a heroic act of restraint. By refusing to explain itself, it becomes a parable. It gestures beyond itself without being properly about anything else. If it had tried to explain itself, it would have failed. But instead it trains its attention on Phil’s predicament with a sort of Aristotelian commitment to the particulars. Because it is successful at the level of the concrete, it is also successful at the level of the universal.
So when I say Groundhog Day is about virtue and grace and salvation, what I mean is that it is a movie that, by being what it is, makes itself transparent to those forces at work on the character of Phil Connors.
By being what it is, furthermore, it invites many interpretations: artists, psychoanalysts, Zen Buddhists, Jews—they’ve all claimed it as their own. I think this is a mark of the film’s success, but I’m going to drill down on the Christian interpretation because, well, I’m a Christian and I think Christianity is the truest explanation of things at bottom. And Groundhog Day, for all its charm and lightheartedness, is a movie about what’s true at bottom.
What the movie is actually about is a weatherman from Pittsburgh named Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray. Every year Phil is assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He is openly contemptuous of the assignment, his coworkers, the festival, the groundhog, the town, and everybody living in it. After the festival, when he gets a weather prediction wrong and a blizzard blows in, the crew gets stuck in Punxsutawney for an extra night. The next morning, however, Phil’s alarm clock wakes him up again at six to the same Sonny and Cher song, and it is again February 2, Groundhog Day. He wakes up this way over and over again, and nothing he does, even killing himself, releases him from the loop.
The role was a critical success for Murray, not so much because he explored new territory or demonstrated more range as an actor, but because he folded the character into himself so completely. He inhabited the role in a way that made it easy for everyone to identify with Phil Connors.
Because of the time-loop conceit, the movie is often pigeonholed as science fiction or fantasy. Amazon Prime, for instance, categorizes the film as “fantasy” in addition to “romantic comedy.” But while I love fantasy and sci-fi, Groundhog Day is what it is because it is quotidian, not science fiction. The time-loop plot device is almost incidental to the feel of the movie. While the six hundred million YouTube videos speculating about how Phil “really” escaped Groundhog Day or exactly how many days he spent there are interesting, they miss the point. The movie is not about creating a universe with its own rules and processes. It’s about everyday life.
Danny Rubin’s script for Groundhog Day originally began in the middle, with Phil Connors sitting outside narrating each event just before it happens, only to later explain how Phil came to possess this knowledge. Thank God they changed it. Another “sci-fi rom-com,” Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, made a dozen years later, starts very much in this fashion. It throws the viewer into the middle of a confused and confusing conversation, which only begins to make more sense as the movie progresses. That’s fun to watch once you understand what’s going on, but it introduces a distracting self-referentiality. It changes the film from a story with a plot device into a plot device with a story—what a friend of mine calls grad-school sci-fi. Such films might explore the contradictions of the human psyche or the complexity of relationships, but they are belaboured by their own learning and cleverness.
Groundhog Day, however, isn’t like any of them. It feels almost tossed off, like it could have been a regular old movie but the filmmakers thought, hey, this idea could provide some laughs and might even say some true things about life along the way. These are the guys who made Stripes and Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, after all. When Harold Ramis, the film’s director, talks about all the other ways the movie might have been made or almost was made—explaining why or how Phil gets stuck on Groundhog Day, or telling us how much time he spent there—you get the sense that they made a classic almost by accident.
So while Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry are hitting us over the head with their erudition, Groundhog Day sneaks up on us with its wry intelligence. The cumbersome title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance, is a quotation from Pope, a fact that is explained to us midway through. Groundhog Day lobs plenty of poetry our way, but it wears its learning much more lightly: French poetry is played for laughs; Rita quotes Sir Walter Scott to witheringly good effect (the philistine Phil laughs at it); and on his last day stuck in the time loop—his perfect day—Phil recites a few lines from Coleridge, without citing him.
But back to the genre. While I recoil at the fantasy/sci-fi label, calling it a romantic comedy isn’t quite accurate either. It’s not a movie about two people falling in love. Their romance is important, and I’ll come back to that. But the central plot development is Phil Connors’s moral transformation. Rita doesn’t change.
So what else is it? I submit that the film is best understood as a mythology.
Here it would be fair to recall that just a few paragraphs up I criticized another film for its overweening pretentions, and now here I am claiming the film is a mythology. A pretentious claim, to be sure, but I am talking about the film and am therefore free to be as pretentious as I want. If the promotional material for Groundhog Day, however, had touted it as a mythology, or if the film itself had overt, heavy-handed references to such tropes, we all could have groaned and went on our way. But it didn’t. Groundhog Day succeeds as mythology only by being unaware of itself as mythology. By being a story only about itself the film is freed to be a transparent expression of the nature of things.
Groundhog Day succeeds as mythology only by being unaware of itself as mythology. By being a story only about itself the film is freed to be a transparent expression of the nature of things.
Myths take for granted the involvement of the gods in the affairs of men and are uninterested in the metaphysics of their operations. Neither are they interested in whether the occurrences in their stories are “realistic.” They assume them to be real, at least to the world of the story, simply because they happen. And finally, mythology is ultimately interested in the gods only to the degree that they highlight human mortality. We hear plenty in the Iliad and the Odyssey about the gods and their comings and goings and their quarrels and their disputes, but their stories are stories only inasmuch as they become entangled with human beings, and thus involved with change. Talking about the gods is a way of talking about death.
What is Groundhog Day interested in, then? Someone or something is manipulating reality in order to influence the fate of Phil Connors.
But who—God, a god, the gods? It’s not important.
Is it possible to actually get stuck in a time loop? Who cares? Mythologies are uninterested in such questions.
Groundhog Day is very much interested, however, in the effects these events have on Phil Connors’s humanity. Phil’s journey, in fact, is the journey from conceiving of himself as a god to acceptance of his personhood, his everymanhood. When he first tries to leave Punxsutawney, a state trooper says to him in the middle of the blizzard, “Don’t you watch the weather? We got a major storm here,” and Phil replies, “I make the weather.” (While he reckons himself a god, others see him as a narcissist—a prima donna, as Larry the cameraman repeatedly says.) Talking to Rita in the diner, Phil makes it explicit: “I’m a god. . . . I’m a god, not the God, I don’t think. . . . I am an immortal.”
But his announcement of his immortality is not one of triumph. It seems that part of Phil’s punishment, his refinement, is to be given the “gift” of what he thinks he is: a god. In order to discover his humanity, he must lose that which makes him human: death. His recognition of his immortality, then, is a recognition of his hopelessness, and it is a key moment in his three-part progression from hedonism to despair to virtue. When he says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even know if I exist anymore,” it’s his immortality, not death, that leads him to question his existence.
While he recognizes the importance of death, he still has to accept that he does not control it. In the third phase, Phil Connors confronts the inevitability of death. Throughout the movie he passes a homeless man in the street begging. Each time, Phil pats his pockets to feign being out of cash. But in the first morning of his virtue phase he gives the man all his money. Phil’s awareness of and concern for others is growing. He later learns that this Groundhog Day is the day the man dies, alone in the cold. Phil tries to save him but fails. In the hospital, as he tries to discover why the man has died so he can save him the next time around, a nurse says to him with an air of finality, “Sometimes people just die.” Phil’s response is “Not today.” But his attempts on subsequent days to prevent the man’s death, no matter how robust, prove futile. Death, it seems, is the last reality with which Phil Connors must come to grips in order to accept his full humanity. Once he does, the next Groundhog Day will be his last one. After that he will be free to love and to die.
So, Groundhog Day is a mythology.
But I said I was going to Christianize this movie, and I’d like to make good on that promise. Since everybody seems to think Christians are obsessed with sin and guilt, let’s talk about vice first. Early on, Phil realizes there are no consequences to his actions and he is free to seek pleasure with abandon. He sleeps with a number of women, eats mountains of unhealthy food, and spends what might be years (or even centuries) orchestrating the theft of one bag of cash from an armoured car. Lust, gluttony, greed: Phil’s actions map onto the seven capital vices pretty well. In fact, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in her excellent book on vice and virtue, writes at length about Groundhog Day, pointing out that Phil’s organizing vice is acedia—not laziness but lack of care for the good, the process of insulating yourself from the demands of love. Phil has virtue-proofed himself.
Talk about vice and virtue might lead to the idea that Phil becomes good by sheer moral effort, that his acceptance of death and embrace of goodness and virtue is what will save him. The film might as well be a Stoic fable.
Except for Rita. Rita is the unchanging and constant force of grace in Phil’s life, the engine of his transformation. Ramis has said that he “envisioned Rita as a mythical princess. She had to be pure in soul and spirit, beautiful, kind, generous, forgiving, and honest.” Even though Phil mocks her earnestness and sincerity, and makes crude and despicable comments to her and about her, the moment he sees her he is drawn to her. She is the one person in the film who is able to tell him the truth about himself. He sexualizes his desire for her and tries to possess her. But she won’t be possessed, she won’t be owned.
After Phil has drunk the hedonistic life to the dregs, he grows weary of it. It is at this point that he again becomes interested in Rita. He has sought out all the counterfeit goods, and now he is drawn to the true image. At this point he actually comes close to wooing Rita. But when he tries to get her in bed, she realizes that his goodness is a sham, that he’s reciting lines and facts about her to get what he wants. He tells her he loves her, but she tells him the truth: “The only person you love is yourself.” And he responds, maybe for the first time, with an even deeper layer of truth: “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.” When he tries to possess her on his terms, the result is violence—in this case many, many slaps in the face. His repeated attempts to act like the kind of person Rita would love end in failure, and he is cast out from Rita’s life. Being exiled from this true goodness leads him to despair. Unable (or unwilling) to become the kind of person who might partake of the goodness Rita embodies, he tries to kill himself in order to end the loop (which doesn’t work): “I’ve come to the end of me, Rita. There’s no way out now. I just want you to know we had a beautiful day together once.”
In the end, after Phil has moved from despair to hope, Rita buys Phil at the bachelor auction. Holding up her chequebook, she cries, “Three hundred and thirty-nine dollars and eighty-eight cents!” implying that she has just emptied out her chequing account in order to buy him. (Youth pastor voice: Who else bought you with everything they own???) The next morning, Phil is surprised to find that it is February 3 and that Rita is in the hotel with him. She reminds him, “I bought you, I own you.” It is made clear that they haven’t slept together, which strikes me as important, and not just because sex outside marriage is a moral prohibition in Christian teaching. Rather, it makes clear he doesn’t possess her. Phil’s reward for becoming good is not sexual conquest. Phil’s reward for becoming good is becoming good. Grace is the means and the goal of virtue.
Phil’s reward for becoming good is becoming good. Grace is the means and the goal of virtue.
It is this goodness regardless of consequence that characterizes Phil’s virtue at the end of the film. He does good because it’s good, not because it will get him something. At the moment when Phil turns from hopelessness to goodness, he says to Rita, “The first time I saw you something happened to me. I never told you, but I knew 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.” To which Rita, who has been dozing off, responds, “Did you say something?” And Phil responds, “Goodnight, Rita.” It doesn’t matter that she didn’t hear him, because what he has said is true only inasmuch as he has said it to himself and meant it.
As pleasure without consequence leads to emptiness and despair, goodness without consequence leads to fullness and happiness. At the heart of Phil’s fullness is acceptance—of winter, of death, of the world. On Phil’s first morning when he is in despair, he steps close to the television camera and says in a menacing tone, “You want a prediction about the weather? You’re asking the wrong Phil [referring to the groundhog]. 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.” But in his last Groundhog Day broadcast, Phil closes with the words “I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.” He has not found a way to escape but a way to accept the world as it presents itself to him. Phil has learned the virtue of prudence, which as Josef Pieper says is “the mold and ‘mother’” of the virtues.
This acceptance results in a loving gaze on the world. In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry observes that an encounter with beauty “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” Phil’s former self-enclosure walled him off from beauty, made him laugh at the idea of studying nineteenth-century French poetry (“What a waste of time,” he says). But in Phil’s turn to goodness, what does he do? He reads literature at the diner, quotes Coleridge to strangers, learns piano, takes up ice sculpting. The Coleridge quotation, “Winter slumbering in the opening air, / Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring,” is from a poem called “Work Without Hope,” which is clearly why Phil has found it relevant enough to memorize. The poem ends with these lines:
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
There’s a sense that Phil has internalized this poem and finds its applicability to his world right and true. He is interpreting the world through the lens of art. His final work of artistic representation is a snow sculpture of Rita’s face, the object of hope. “It’s beautiful,” she says. He replies, “I know your face so well I could have done it with my eyes closed.” He has taken into himself the beauty of grace to the degree that he can effortlessly reproduce it.
The last quality of Phil’s virtue is his generosity, or what the virtue tradition calls magnanimity. All through the last scenes Phil does generous things for others that bring him great honour in the community. One thing he does in particular is to buy a lavish insurance package from Ned Ryerson, a leechy yokel Phil has belittled, mocked, lied to, and physically assaulted throughout the film. In the first scene when Phil and Ned meet, Ned tries to sell him insurance and says, “Single premium life: that could be the ticket for you.”
Phil brushes him off then, but it turns out Ned was right. Single premium life is the ticket for Phil. When Ned runs into Phil and Rita at the end of the final, perfect day, Ned, ecstatic that Phil has been so generous with him, says, “This is the best day of my life.” “Mine too,” Phil says.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that the groundhog’s name is also Phil. One character, when he meets Phil Connors, says, “Phil? Like the groundhog Phil? Look out for your shadow!” Like so many lines in the film, this one has a double significance. Phil Connors is the groundhog, and in order for winter to end, to break the enchantment, to (sigh) get out of the time loop, he must come to a point where he no longer sees the shadow of himself. He must learn how to shed the darker side of his nature. In doing so he must respond to the summons of beauty, a beauty that is at one with goodness, and that is capable of drawing him out of himself, of telling him who he truly is and who he might be. Phil, importantly, does not cease being funny or mischievous when he becomes good. Rita does not make him a different person; he is, rather, more fully and expansively himself. And the enchantment is not so much broken as overpowered by a much more potent enchantment—the enchantment of the good.
Phil Connors, in becoming more himself, also weirdly becomes more like Bill Murray. This seems almost intentional. Ramis has said of Murray that his “persona sort of embodies the best and worst in people,” which partly explains why Murray was able to play the part so successfully. Bill Murray is always playing a version of Bill Murray. Bill Murray is Phil Connors. Phil Connors is everybody. We are all Phil Connors.