Today it’s another prison movie. Well, kind of. “Groundhog Day” (on Netflix) is another story about a trapped man who eventually reaches his lowest point, so much so that he tries to take his own life. Then, just as in “The Shawshank Redemption“, he rebuilds himself, tiny piece by tiny piece, until he becomes the best version of himself he can be. And this metaphorical life lesson is all wrapped up with a romantic comedy bow.
Phil Connors, a TV Weather Man, is reluctantly sent to cover a small town’s annual Groundhog Day event. The story then adds a big dose of magic realism as he finds himself trapped in a time loop, having to repeatedly live a day he had utter contempt for. What could be more boring and eventually soul-destroying? And yet, to some extent, we all do it. You could even think of it as the ultimate lockdown movie.
It’s very entertaining and, as with “The Truman Show“, it’s a premise that brings out feelings we all have from time to time. Our lives may seem that they are not really ours to control, that we just have to live with whatever is thrown at us. In Truman’s case it’s literal – his life is actually being controlled. In “Groundhog Day” Phil’s torment mirrors all of our daily routines – it’s basically new day, same old shit.
It also plays into those feelings we may have when we think about the past. We wonder if things would be different if we had done this rather than that, made one choice rather than another. When we feel bored and dissatisfied with life we wonder how we ended up like this. It is almost definitely not what we imagined.
And that is the key to Phil’s redemption. He is given the torment of living the same day over and over, but it opens up a multitude of possibilities. He can change what he did “yesterday”. After his greatest moment of despair, he starts to improve, making those small changes that often don’t mean much on their own but, in total, make a huge difference. Just like the people in the current lockdown who bake bread, learn an instrument or a foreign language, Phil makes productive use of the situation. Despite the daily routine he eventually makes the day, and himself, the best they can possibly be.
From the above you might be able to guess that the original script by Danny Rubin was quite dark, but director Harold Ramis worked with him to make it more comedic and romantic while keeping the main themes intact. Ramis, who co-wrote “Ghostbusters” and played Spengler in that movie, picked his long-time collaborator Bill Murray for the lead. Andie MacDowell was cast as the love interest and angel on his shoulder and, although not an actor I rate highly, she’s actually pretty good and works well with Murray.
Murray and Ramis fell out during production and didn’t speak for years as Murray wanted to focus on the philosophical ideas that I’ve outlined, whereas Ramis wanted to make it more comedic. Nevertheless, the film manages to balance the two positions pretty well. Murray does a fantastic job portraying Phil’s character arc and the film lead to him being cast in more serious roles in his later years.
The film was a success, mostly because it’s a comedy that has a lot of depth and speaks to the human condition while making you laugh. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1993, the title has become a common part of the English language, and it’s often considered one of the greatest comedies of all time.