In scientific theory, a time loop occurs when a length of time repeats continuously. Cinephiles may experience the sensation of being trapped in some sort of time loop when engaged with the monotony of popular cinema, and that notion is an essential part of what makes the duality of intelligence and entertainment in Harold Ramis’s GROUNDHOG DAY so successful.
The film begins as cynical TV weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray in one of his most charismatic performances) is sent to the charmingly rural town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report the annual Groundhog Day festivities. These events culminate in a presentation by the mayor of the town’s mascot, a groundhog, whose shadow apparently will determine the arrival of spring. This entire ordeal is the antithesis of Phil Connors’s temperament, summed up articulately when he states to the camera, “This is one occasion where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”
The following morning, Phil wakes up to the same Sonny and Cher duet crackling on his motel radio and starts the same exact day over again. For an indefinite period of time after that, Phil will continue to report the same news story, aggravate his co-workers with his sarcastic pessimism, and step in the same puddle while crossing the street because he’s always too pre-occupied to notice it. He never contemplates or questions this intolerable ennui, but instead accepts it blindly as he does the rest of his unfulfilling life.
Towards the end of the film, Phil finally decides to attempt a drastic change. After covering the Groundhog Day celebration yet again, he steals the similarly named groundhog and, in an act of desperation, drives with it off a cliff. Although this scene is merely the first entry into a sequence of unsuccessful suicide attempts, it marks an interesting parallel between the two Phil’s; Phil Connors, the man, is no different from Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog. Both are literally trapped in a small town, and an even smaller and more unsatisfactory life, forced to repeatedly broadcast the same weather report day in and day out. The script never points out this realization concretely, but it is interesting to note that the failure in changing his external situation is what forces Phil to confront his internal character.
Once Phil’s interests fixate on courting his co-worker (Andie MacDowell), the reality of his situation finally dawns on him – no matter how hard he tries to strategize and perfect his pick-up lines on Rita, he will always wake up a stranger to her. Once she sees how he’s taken the time to befriend the locals of Punxsutawney, enamor himself with culture, and generally fall in love with life, she finally falls in love with him. And this time, it’s not because of an act – it’s because he has become a loving person. He doesn’t change his outlook on life just to escape it – he does it to change himself.
As with any comedy targeted to a mass audience, this film’s primary purpose lies in its entertainment value, and on that level, it thrives. Ramis’s direction, Murray’s performance, and Danny Rubin’s clever screenplay all unite to showcase the best elements of a comedy, resulting in an immediate classic not dissimilar to a Billy Wilder film. The depiction of a small town interloped between charm and tedium is riotous, and lays the groundwork for Phil’s primary obstacle of challenging his emotional prison.
The script contains profound ideas about the relationship between life and time, and it’s only appropriate that a film that tackles the concept of time should become so timeless. There are theorists who posit that time is a man-made invention, and has little to do with the universe or with people. Once Phil Connors stops obsessing about where he will be once he gets out of wherever he is, his future becomes a hell of a lot brighter. GROUNDHOG DAY is the ultimate filmic lesson in living in the present, and learning to find the happiness in now rather than hoping it will come later. Its influence on contemporary cinema has established its rightly deserved entry into the canon of classic films.