GROUNDHOG DAY: Innocuous PG Romantic Comedy or Unsettling Nightmare?

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Let me start off by saying I love Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ classic 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as a selfish weatherman finding redemption through reliving the same day over and over again. I first saw it in the theater with my father when I was six years old, and I’ve often found myself revisiting it over the past 20 years. It’s a funny, warm, even sentimental film – certainly one of the most unique romantic comedies ever produced – but those aren’t the elements that have stuck with me all this time. Even as a six-year-old, I could detect a deeply disturbing subtext that left a strange taste in my mouth; as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more fascinated by this otherwise cheerful film’s nightmarish traits. Upon watching it again this Groundhog Day, I’ve come to the conclusion that Groundhog Day is one of the more unsettling movies I’ve ever seen.

Before I get into the thick of this analysis, I remind you this is purely the product of a cynical movie geek reading far too much into a fun movie everyone loves. Whenever Groundhog Day gets the chance, it takes the optimistic route, taking pains to show Phil Connors (Murray) making the best of his inexplicable predicament. The back half of the film largely concerns Phil learning skills such as speaking French, ice sculpting, and playing piano – things we all wish we had the limitless time to devote ourselves to. In fact, Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin are essentially arguing that this weird curse is actually a blessing in disguise, providing a jaded man with an opportunity to better himself.

The film follows a somewhat traditional three-act redemption arc that intertwines with a somewhat well-worn romantic subplot, yet the combination creates a satisfying experience. Some of the most entertaining sections of the film depict Phil repeating dates with Rita (Andie MacDowell) in order to learn how to push her buttons and get her into the sack. He damn near succeeds by the halfway mark, but every time he gets really close, Rita sniffs out his disingenuousness and shuts him down. Only later, when Phil truly becomes a selfless individual at long last, does Rita show him the legitimate love that effectively ends the time loop.

But there comes a point an hour in where Groundhog Day flirts with the dark side of this situation, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the section people tend to remember most vividly. In order to end his torturously repetitive existence, Phil grows increasingly despondent. He drinks on the job. He kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil and leads the police on a wild chase that ends in his fiery death at the bottom of a cliff. Immediately afterward, he tries to kill himself in various ways: tossing a toaster in the bathtub, stepping in front of a truck, and finally jumping off a tall building. In a famous scene at the town diner, Phil describes himself as “immortal” to Rita, citing numerous ways in which he’s tried to commit suicide (“I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned”). If you can think of any other beloved PG movies that involve a suicide montage (besides Harold and Maude), please let me know.

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Now, I admit this sequence of despondence constitutes a very brief section of the movie’s running time, as Phil starts cleaning up his act right after the “immortal” diner scene. He begins to treat Rita with honesty rather than try to creepily manipulate her, becomes concerned with saving the life of an ailing homeless man, and engages in other similarly beneficial behaviors to become a better person. But however glossed over this depressing section of the film may be, it is the most vital part of the movie. Without addressing this nightmarish aspect to Phil’s dilemma, Groundhog Day doesn’t work.

Think for a moment about classic works of literature such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and of course, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In each of these three novels, the heroines find themselves in dire straits from which they can only free themselves by suicide. This also manifests itself in cinema (i.e. Lilya 4-ever, the most depressing movie I have ever seen), but the three aforementioned books are the primary examples that come to mind. In the most reductive sense, “life sucks and then you die (by your own hand).”

But Phil Connors can’t just walk into the sea Bodhi-style, swallow arsenic, or walk his ass in front of a speeding train. He’s certainly welcome to try, but no matter how flamboyantly he tries to off himself, he wakes up the next morning to the familiar sound of “I Got You Babe.” Phil doesn’t have the freedom or autonomy to end his own life like those memorable literary heroines; he’s always going to find himself alive, in the same spot, starting again from square one. Personally, I think that is fucked up.

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It reminds me of what is possibly the most disturbing short story I’ve ever read: Harlan Ellison’s “Pulling Hard Time.” This story describes a futuristic scenario in which criminals find themselves subject to a “humane” punishment that is more barbaric than anything the Romans could have come up with: they float around weightless, trapped in a permanent dream state in which they constantly relive their worst, most traumatic memories. In many ways, mental torture is infinitely worse than corporeal torture, especially when the latter eventually ends.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Phil’s time loop is one seriously sadistic punishment, especially when Ramis and Rubin give no indication of what caused this loop or what can stop it. It being a movie, love eventually conquers all, but Phil doesn’t know that. In Rubin’s original screenplay, Phil mistreated a girlfriend who then vengefully put a hex on him, but Ramis wisely cut this explanation out and left things vague. Thus, for all Phil knows, he could become the most altruistic man alive and yet stay trapped in this jolly nightmare for eternity.

Crucial to this is the exact duration Phil actually spends inside the time loop, which remains tantalizingly ambiguous. Ramis himself initially suggested 10 years, then amended that to 30-40 years. A wonderful piece by Simon Gallagher (which you can read here) painstakingly analyzed the film and came up with an estimate of around 34 years. Other estimates vary; Stephen Tobolowsky (who plays Ned in the film) suggested that it was upwards of 10,000 years. Just think of how psychologically warped you’d become after a decade spent reliving the same events, let alone a thousand decades!

The closest cinematic comparison I can think of is Inception, where at different points Leonardo DiCaprio and Ken Watanabe’s characters are trapped inside dreams that feel like they last 50 years or more. As eerie as that was, it immediately reminded me of Groundhog Day. Beneath all its cheesy 90s songs, occasionally cornball humor, and winning optimism, Groundhog Day presents a thoroughly disquieting scenario. While I may be reading into this movie too much, I believe the reason Groundhog Day is so celebrated, imitated, and revered is because it taps into an abstract nightmare we all share: the fear of being unable to evolve.

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