Bill Murray's beloved 1993 comedy touches on religion, morality in ways no one could possibly predict.
It’s strange that Harold Ramis’s “Groundhog Day” feels more like a ritual than a movie this time of year.
The 1993 comedy has built up such a huge fan-base that it now regularly gets screened in movie theaters annually come February.
It’s not hard to see why.
The film is a contemporary Hollywood classic. The cast is a veritable who’s who of great 1990s comedy mainstays. Even so, that’s not a status that similar classics of its time have attained. “Men in Black,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Austin Powers” and “Office Space” all came out around the same period and yet their revival screenings are much sparser.
When I saw one of these “Groundhog Day” screenings a few years back the theater was surprisingly full. Check your local film listings. Many independently-owned theater and some wider film chains in the United States are liable to do revival screenings come February.
I happen to live within driving distance of Woodstock, IL where the film was shot. I can tell you that the movie is a big enough deal that this small town takes enormous pride in it. It’s even been immortalized in a mural half a block from its downtown movie theater which carries a dedication to the late Ramis.
I shot a series of interviews there back in the fall of 2018 as part of a commemoration documentary of the life of Orson Welles, and all of the major locations from the film are still intact.
Walking through the town is almost a bizarre religious experience if you’ve seen the film as much as some of its fans have. Mind you, it’s not unheard of for a small town to brag about its connection to a big Hollywood production.
The nearby town of Plano hosts a yearly celebration tied to “Man of Steel,” which used the town for the film’s Smallville sequences. That was a Superman movie, though.
Even the neighboring city of Chicago rarely makes a big deal of the fact that “Blues Brothers” and “The Dark Knight” were shot downtown. The fact that a Bill Murray movie from the 1990s is being immortalized as a local achievement is fascinating.
Part of the film’s success is due, in part, to the critical reexamination the film had in the early 2000s. The film became a major talking point in philosophical and religious circles in the decades after its premiere. The religious right embraced it as that rare Hollywood film that exemplifies Christian values.
Judeo-Christian radio-host Dennis Prager calls the film his personal favorite while conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg famously published an essay on it in the February 2005 issue of National Review, entitled “A Film For All Time.”
It’s republished every year on Groundhog Day at National Review Online.
I won’t repeat the points Goldberg makes here, but needless to say the film means a lot to religiously minded people across the world. It’s not hard to see why. The movie is drowning in religious themes regarding resurrection, rebirth and moral constitution.
It’s a movie about the reinventing of a person from a smug, materialistic jerk into a person who actually appreciates life for all it’s worth.
Still, even outside of directly religious circles the film maintains a massive reputation.
There wouldn’t be as many yearly revival screenings every February if the film only appealed to conservative Christians and Jews. The film is renowned across cultures and philosophies because it captures something innately moral about the human experience in a way most mid-budget comedy films don’t.
Even in that, it’s still a thoroughly modern film that understands who it’s appealing too. Compare it to something like Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The two films have a lot in common thematically and in terms of how they go about framing their character’s evolution.
The film is dark but it’s dark in a way that’s very honest to the lives of post-war America’s deep sense of horror and economic strife. It’s relatable to a person of the greatest generation to see a character go through as much strife and come out the other end of it as a joyful fulfilled person.
The film ends on an explicitly Christian and communitarian moment of unity that an American in the 1940s and 1950s would find relatedly contemporary.
Groundhog Day doesn’t have this sense of communitarian moralism. From the start, Phil Conners is a selfish jerk who doesn’t appreciate anybody around him. He hates his job, his coworkers and doesn’t want to be anywhere near a backwater hole like Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
He’s a thoroughly modern man, embodied by Murray’s iconic brand of smug disinterest. If he were born 30 years earlier maybe he would’ve been inculcated in a more morally demanding culture and he likely would’ve come out looking like George Bailey.
His journey is also much less overtly religious in nature than Bailey’s. His moral lesson isn’t something conjured by an angel to teach a valuable lesson so much as it is beaten into him by the universe himself. He doesn’t know why he keeps waking up on Groundhog Day for seemingly years at a time and neither does the audience.
It’s a metaphor for banality and the frustrating lack of answers the universe gives us while we’re screaming into the void about how boring life is.
The movie sets up a much more cynical and modern setting for such a character to go on a journey of self-discovery, but that journey ends up turning into an overtly religious one. Like the famous scene in “The Simpsons” of Sideshow Bob walking into the rakes dozens of times, Phil Conners must repeat the same day over and over again until he finally makes the right decisions.
As we find out, time only starts moving again in the final scene where he’s finally lived a full day of total unselfishness and earned the love of a woman he cares for on completely honest terms.
He learns the same lesson George Bailey does even without the help of an angel.
Life is only meaningful when you live life for the good of others. This quintessentially moralistic argument is what gives the film its appeal amongst religious fans but it captures this truth about life in a way that’s honest to everyone’s experience. As much as many people want to live lives of aloof detachment, life has to mean something.
“Groundhog Day” clearly wasn’t intended to be a deeply religious or moralistic experience given the relative aloofness of the individuals who made yet it settled into a perfect story that still drawing new fans to it every year. The fact that it’s attained this status is a glorious fluke and one to be thankful for.
Like most great art, it’s in some ways an accident greater than the artists who made it intended it to be.
If you still haven’t been blessed to see it, it’ll likely be playing repeatedly on television this week and its well worth the hour and a half it asks of you.