The road to salvation in ‘Groundhog Day’

Illustration of alarm clock with man's face from Groundhog Day
Jericho Tang/Staff

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When we think of what it means to become a better person, we generally frame the process as a sort of moral awakening. According to a popular sentiment, all becoming a better person supposedly requires is seeing the sin in your current ways and making a decision to embrace what is right. Only then will a change in your actions follow. It’s a wholesome story: clean, easy and imbued with karma. But, as I’ve learned the hard way in my attempts to grow out of being that immature high school kid — the one who sometimes still stares back from the bathroom mirror — it’s also quite wrong. I think that’s what has drawn me to the classic film “Groundhog Day” so much as I’ve gotten older. At its core, the film is a morally opaque depiction of personal growth.

When I was younger, I adored it for the obvious reason: Few films are so thoroughly entertaining. Directed by the great Harold Ramis, the film’s gluttonous and consequence-free immortality is unparalleled escapism. And that’s why, even on my 50th rewatch while sheltering in place, a movie about repetition has never once felt repetitive. Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors is sleazy charisma personified, as the jaded weatherman trapped in a time loop on Groundhog Day. Set to cover the groundhog’s emergence live in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Connors’ jerkish and megalomaniacal behavior finally catches up to him as he finds himself mysteriously doomed to repeat Groundhog Day for eternity. Rather than remaining monotonous, however, each day follows different scenarios and bounces the town’s colorful characters off each other to hilarious and heartbreaking effect. Ned Ryerson’s shameless insurance pitch, for instance, has never failed to put me on the floor in tears. 

The fun of the movie is why I too often choose to watch “Groundhog Day” at 2:00 p.m. on a Monday instead of tuning in to lecture. But it’s the resonance behind Phil’s odyssey that separates it as my single favorite movie. Eternity is emotionally profound enough on its own, yet using it as a laboratory for human development rather than just as a cheap gag allows the film to grapple with what it means to be a good person in a profoundly complex way. 

The catalyst for Phil’s change is Rita (Andie MacDowell), an uncommonly kind woman who looks down in disappointment on Phil’s narcissistic contempt. No matter how hard he tries, Phil is unable to win her over. Thus, however funny it is to see Phil fruitlessly “Control-Z” his dates with Rita in the hopes of earning her affection, his initial motivation for change is grossly selfish. While this lust doesn’t totally define his behavior by the end, Phil does break the cycle at the end of the film with Rita in bed beside him, suggesting his love for her remained a crucial motivation.

But there’s a morally lighter side to Phil’s progression as well. We’ve all probably met that one person (or maybe more than one) who was so clearly a better human than us. They’re kind, they’re likeable and they’re genuinely empathetic. In the years he spends around Rita, Phil feels this as well. Whether she’s as perfect as Phil believes she is is an interesting question — her stubborn refusal to toast anything but world peace had eaten at me for years — but in his mind, she’s no less angelic than the ice sculptures he creates of her. Phil may not see the world like her, but once faced with the vapidity of his endless rebirths, he finds that he wants to.

Phil’s feelings toward Rita are an incentive for him to become a better person, not an instinctive moral awakening. There is nothing organic or instantaneous about the changes Phil makes. Yet that incentive pushes Phil to act better — to fake it until he makes it. Of course, there’s nothing easy about this. Phil’s journey is a grueling climb filled with the torture of endless repetiton and a hopeless depression that rears its head in the form of an extended suicide montage. It’s bleak for a film billed as a fantastical rom-com. But for an honest tale of redemption, it packs a punch. 

And in the end, Phil succeeds. The townspeople find a benevolent savior and Rita and Phil find love. The nature of the medium naturally prevents us from knowing Phil’s thinking by the end, but through sheer work and despite gray motivations, Phil is able to act like a good person. And, by the film’s logic, that’s enough to make him a good person. It’s a strikingly off-kilter message for a Hollywood film, but it provides genuine inspiration for me as I try to become the person I want to be. We don’t have to be saints — we just need to strive to act like them. 

Contact David Newman at [email protected].