If you are my age, you probably remember Groundhog Day. That film where Bill Murray plays the reporter who gets trapped in a time loop in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania and continues to live February 2nd over and over again? Groundhog Day (PG, 1993) came out when I was only 13 years old. At the time the film, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, seemed to be little more than a quirky, fantastical story about a guy stuck reliving the same day over and over again and all the hilarity that can be imagined in such a scenario.
As a 13 year old, I was obviously enamored with the more comical elements of the movie - watching Bill Murray kill himself again and again, run from the police, and go nuts doing whatever he wanted because he knows that there will be no consequences. I remember as a kid I was always bored with the second half of the film, where Murray starts trying to improve himself. Hence I remembered Groundhog Day as a film that was mildly entertaining but nothing special.
Then when I went off to college, I heard a couple of my film aficionado buddies going on about Groundhog Day. How profoundly philosophical it was. How it was ripe with Catholic truths. How it was indicative of the human condition. Then I heard it started showing up on lists in various publications as one of the greatest pro-Catholic movies of all time. Then I ran across an article that called it the greatest spiritual film of our time.
I began to think that maybe there was something to this film that I may have missed as a 13 year old. So the wife and I decided to give it a watch - and what better time? - early in February around Groundhog's Day.
In case you are not familiar with the film or if it has just been twenty years since you've seen it, Groundhog Day is about a selfish, careerist weather reporter named Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray. Connors has aspirations to be a high-profile reporter with a national profile, but he is sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day event at Punxatawney on February 2nd. Connors obviously finds this beneath him and throws a temper tantrum, which makes his own day and that of his coworkers miserable. Unfortunately, a blizzard closes the freeway and forces he and his crew to spend the night in Punxatawney. When he wakes up in the morning, he finds that it is still February 2nd. Phil Connors eventually realizes he is in a time loop, and no matter what he does he will always wake up on February 2nd and live the same day over again. Even attempts at suicide cannot get him out of the loop.
Besides the obvious charm of its fantastical premise, the film succeeds at creating a very accurate allegory of the human condition. We may not all be living the exact same day over and over again, but we all live a succession of days, and though we don't get a reset button that starts us over at 6:00 AM every day, we all have choices to make and people that are put in our path with whom we must deal. How will we relate to others? How will we live in the time that is allotted to us? Even if we can't start over in the strict sense, as John Paul II noted in his pre-pontifical work The Acting Person, in a certain sense, we create ourselves anew everyday by our actions. "Choose this day whom you will serve" (Jos. 24:15).
Thus the movie presents us with a very succinct commentary in the different ways one can approach our condition, ranging from the hedonistic to the altruistic.
After the initial confusion of being stuck in a time loop wears off, Phil realizes that being stuck in one day means there is no tomorrow, and hence no real consequences to his actions. His initial response to this reality is to indulge his carnal passions: he gets drunk, breaks things, seduces women, steals, etc. But the fun of all this predictably wears off quickly. The excitement of a life of dissipation quickly turns to boredom, malaise and ultimately despair.
Phil then sets his sights on his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and works feverishly over many cycles of days to figure out how to seduce her. He comes to the conclusion that he should be able to create a "perfect day." He spends countless cycles of days learning about Rita, trying different "moves" on her to get her where he wants her; if he makes a blunder or hits a dead-end one day, he tries again on the next, eventually sculpting a "perfect" day in which every word and contingency is intentionally scripted towards the single end of winning over Rita.
But, to Phil's dismay, the most perfect moments are those that happen spontaneously. When he tries to repeat or script these perfect moments, he finds that they lose their value. While he initially has some success with Rita, he finds himself increasingly rejected to the degree that he scripts the day. He eventually realizes that love must be free; the time loop may allow him to script a "perfect" February 2nd in which everything happens exactly as he wants it to, but the scripted perfection is hollow and lifeless, like a statue.
His failure at scripting a perfect day really speaks to the philosophical rationale for free will. God is love, and as creatures made in His image and called to love, that response requires freedom. It cannot be scripted, nor coerced. Just as Phil realizes the love of Rita can only be won freely, so the love of creatures to their Creator must be given freely.
After realizing that love cannot be scripted, Phil decides to use his apparently infinite amount of time to better himself and help others. The fact that he has no "tomorrow" gives his charity an altruistic character. In a sense it compels him to expect nothing in return from his good deeds, as his life will inevitably start over at 6:00 AM February 2nd every day. However, when he reaches a point of perfect selflessness, he finds the time loop broken and he escapes. The Christian inference is obvious: it is only by being willing to lose our selves and orient our will towards the service of God and others that we are capable of attaining heaven and freed from our own fallen nature.
I should mention, many other religious traditions have read their own theologies into this film. Buddhists tend to see Phil's repeating of the same day over and over again as suggestive of the reincarnation cycle. Catholics, obviously, read a Christian theology into it; it is definitely suggestive of Purgatory. Jews and Protestants as well have made claims to the film. Director Howard Ramis has stated that there is no overt religious theory the film is based on and admits the theme may resonate with various religions, so I am not suggesting this is a 'Catholic' film in the strict sense. However, I do think Catholics can find a lot to think about here.
There are some content issues. Phil is a seducer and more than once is depicted trying to get a woman in bed, although there are no actual sex scenes in the film, although it is sometimes implied; it is definitely not for kids. There are also one or two dirty jokes and a few instances of bad language. Still, Bill Murray has such an extraordinary presence and the film is so well done that these minor problems don't detract from the overall enjoyment.
Thus, I found after twenty years the film definitely lived up to its reputation. I would definitely watch it again. I give it a 2.5, qualified only because of some of the language and implied sexual content. If one or two scenes were omitted, it would be an easy 3 for sure. The fact that Bill Murray is a Catholic who likes the Traditional Latin Mass is also a plus.