January 29, 2024 - 10:12am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on Groundhog Day were written by Madison Barnes-Nelson, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Groundhog Day, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, will screen on Friday, February 2, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular screening space, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Madison Barnes-Nelson

“What would you do, if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” asks Phil Connors (Bill Murray) to a pair of bowling alley barflies. “That about sums it up for me,” retorts one of the drunks. Anyone who has ever felt miserable, run down, or even just stuck at home during the long winter months may find this to be an extremely relatable sentiment. For Phil Connors, however, this scenario is not a metaphor for the drudgery of daily life, but a very literal predicament with no end in sight. 

When misanthropic Pittsburgh weatherman Connors begrudgingly travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the town’s annual Groundhog Day gathering, he does so in hopes that it his last trip to the sleepy little burg. Phil treats everyone in his life with sarcasm and disdain, including his beautiful news producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and wry cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) who accompanied him on the trip. Phil’s disdain only intensifies when a massive snowstorm (contrary to Phil’s own weather forecast) traps the trio in Punxsutawney for the night. When Phil awakens the next morning, he’s still in Punxsutawney, and worse, he’s still in Groundhog Day. So begins Phil’s unexplained cosmic quest, as he experiences the longest winter of his life and re-lives Groundhog Day, always unchanging, without consequences or means of escape. Of course, Phil does what any person with no care for others would do—use the time loop to indulge in sex, junk food, and petty grudges against local townsfolk, such as obnoxious but well-meaning insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky). But indulgence wears thin quickly, and soon Phil must figure out how to spend his days in this provincial purgatory, a journey that will force him to look plainly at himself and how he treats those around him.

Reaching a point of true misery, Phil finds himself drawn to the earnest Rita, a romantic with a penchant for poetry seeking a connection of her own. But even Phil’s (sometimes slimy, sometimes sweet) stabs at romantic love aren’t enough for him to break free. Instead, he must turn outward and let go of his own selfish desires. Over (an indeterminate amount of) time, he learns to experience the real, transformative love that can come from helping and caring for others, a feeling that may resonate for anyone lost and looking for greater meaning in their life.

Between Ramis’s work as a writer/director and as an actor, Groundhog Day was his sixth collaboration with Murray. Ramis helped launch Murray’s career as a leading man, co-writing 1979’s Meatballs, and his work as both a writer and co-star on Ghostbusters (1984) launched Murray to stratospheric heights of stardom. However, Murray was not the initial choice to play Phil Connors. Both Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton passed on the role, while screenwriter Danny Rubin suggested Kevin Kline. Chevy Chase, who Murray had replaced on the second season of Saturday Night Live, was also suggested as an option. As fascinating as they are to consider, it is arguable that none of these actors would work in the role as well as Murray, who imbues his usual sly, sardonic presence with a deep well of melancholy, in some ways presaging his future dramatic work with Wes Anderson and his Oscar-nominated turn in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). Despite arguably career-best work from both men, Groundhog Day would prove to be their final collaboration. The two butted heads throughout the difficult production, leading to a decades-long rift that would only be resolved shortly before Ramis’s death in 2014.

Groundhog Day opened in wide release on February 12, 1993, (strangely a full 10 days after the holiday) to box office and critical success, grossing over $100 million worldwide. The long-term legacy of the film has been even more impressive. In 2017, a stage musical adaptation with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin transferred from London to Broadway, earning seven Tony Award nominations. The film also launched a veritable subgenre, with several films and shows adapting its time loop conceit across different genres, such as the sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow (2014), the college horror-comedy Happy Death Day (2017), and the Netflix dramedy series Russian Doll (2019-2022) to name a few. Perhaps most surprisingly, the film began the career of acclaimed character actor and Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon, who makes his screen debut in a small role as a WrestleMania-loving newlywed. Over thirty years later, what has made Groundhog Day endure is not its (thankfully unexplained) high-concept premise, but its simple yet poignant philosophical message. Sometimes all it takes to fix a selfish heart is a single day, even if some days are longer than others.