30 Years Ago, One Timeless Comedy Taught Men A Valuable Lesson
Groundhog Day is hilarious. But what it has to say about masculinity is perhaps even more valuable.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine American pop culture of the 1980s without Harold Ramis and Bill Murray’s collaborations, especially where cinematic comedy is concerned. Ramis and Murray’s movies left an indelible impact on the late 1970s and 80s but they peaked with their final film together, which wasn’t actually an ‘80s movie at all. Thirty years ago, on February 12, 1993, Groundhog Day was released and it changed everything. It’s a funny movie. But it also took a crack at how toxic men can change their ways.
Murry and Ramis’ movie collaborations occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of multiple generations of American men. They’re the movies that entertained us at slumber parties as kids and helped define our senses of humor, individually and collectively. Their films are the pop classics that made Bill Murray not just a beloved and wildly popular movie star but a folk hero. (Deservedly or not) 1981’s Stripes found Ramis and Murray goofing off on Uncle Sam’s dime for director Ivan Reitman. And then there’s the wonderful 1984’s Ghostbusters, which Reitman also directed and Ramis co-wrote. Ramis and Murray also collaborated on the Reitman-helmed 1989 hit Ghostbusters II but that was just another movie and not a particularly impressive one. Not every movie is important or seminal. (Editor’s note, Ghostbusters II is very funny, and arguably shows growth for Bill Murray’s “jerk persona” in a different way. But, yes, it’s not seminal.)
With Groundhog Day, these two entertainers with an unusually powerful connection to our collective and individual inner child decided to grow up. Ramis and Murray’s endlessly iconic final masterpiece is appropriately enough a coming-of-age redemption story about the joys of being a man of substance rather than a child only interested in pursuing their own desires and needs. In his finest role, Murray is brilliantly type-cast as Pennsylvania weatherman Phil Connors. He’s the ultimate version of a classic Murray type: a preening, wise-cracking show-business phony with richly merited contempt for his audience.
Phil begins the film as a petulant man-child who does nothing to conceal his disdain for his professional colleagues at the local television station where he works until he can achieve his ambition to become a big-time weatherman and leave all the rubes and small-timers behind. Murray’s smart-ass protagonist doesn’t talk to people so much as he talks at them. He has no interest in genuine communication or listening. When a pleasant small-town woman asks him about the weather he condescendingly repeats the weather forecast he just performed on air rather than engage in even a moment of small talk or honest, spontaneous conversation.
Then fate throws Murray’s blissfully belligerent brat a cosmic curveball. A boy in a furious hurry to get out of his small-time job and life suddenly finds himself stuck. After suffering through a Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — that’s a gauntlet of low-level humiliations and aggravations — the smug local news personality is horrified to find himself re-living the same awful day on a perpetual loop.
Punxsutawney is a charming, folksy All-American town that our anti-hero eventually warms up to but it’s easy to see how it could initially feel like a torment of the damned to someone as cynical and bracingly unsentimental as Phil. Phil is confused and overwhelmed by the time loop he finds himself in. Incidentally, Groundhog Day did not invent the time loop. Time loops are an old staple of science fiction, and Star Trek: The Next Generation even dropped a near-perfect time loop episode just the year prior with the 1992 episode “Cause and Effect.” But because Groundhog Day is so good, and it perfected and refined the time loop concept so well, the idea of all time loops is now synonymous with Ramis’ film. People who may not have even seen Groundhog Day, still call a sense of monotonous reputation, like “Groundhog Day.”
Our cursed protagonist deals with the situation the way a nihilistic child might. Since his actions no longer have consequences, Phil decides to be as hedonistic, calculating, and gluttonous as possible. Since he never has to worry about calories or gaining weight he can eat his weight in food every meal. In a realistic, if deeply problematic development, he also uses the time loop to gain the information he needs to seduce a busty local beauty, confident that the next time he sees her she’ll once again be a total stranger. Phil lurches into a life of consequence-free criminality. Out of boredom and a need for challenges, he steals from an armored truck and later purloins the groundhog at the center of the town’s Groundhog Day festivities, leading the authorities on a high-speed chase.
The weatherman in the existential bind’s selfish, immature pursuit of pleasure and thrills leads him down a dark path. Phil becomes so depressed and hopeless that he attempts suicide. He tries again and again and again without success before realizing that he has been blessed and cursed with immortality and a strange form of Godhood.
Being a horrible person, Phil uses the time loop to learn everything about his adorable producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) in order to make her fall in love with him. She’s predictably impressed by Phil’s God-like prescience and their uncanny similarities but also senses that there is something deeply wrong, that Phil is cheating to get closer to her.
Phil isn’t roused from hopelessness and suicidal despair until he realizes that his salvation lies in looking beyond his own needs and pleasures and thinking about the needs and desires of those around him. That’s what being a man is ultimately about here: sacrificing for the greater good and using your advantages to help society, not just yourself.
The selfish overgrown jerk becomes a kind, concerned and compassionate man who lives to serve others. He goes from punching iconically obnoxious insurance agent and high school acquaintance Ned Reyerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) in what is quite possibly the funniest and most satisfying punch in film history, to making the obnoxious man’s dreams come true by buying seemingly every insurance plan he offers. Phil’s salvation lies in genuinely connecting with Rita on an emotional and spiritual level, in seeing her as a soulmate and an equal and not a prize to be won through subterfuge and strategy. He has to leave childhood behind and become a man in order to free himself from his curse, which doubles as an unexpected blessing.
Quentin Tarantino has criticized Groundhog Day for its suggestion that a warm and fuzzy Bill Murray who has experienced spiritual growth and learned from his mistakes is preferable to the bitter and sarcastic Bill Murray we know and love, albeit much more problematically than we did a few years ago. And, while It’s true that the mean, angry, ambitious Murray of the film’s first act is funnier than the spiritually evolved good samaritan he eventually becomes, he’s also an objectively better, more likable figure. Part of Murray and Ramis’ own maturation as storytellers and filmmakers involved being willing to sacrifice hard laughs for philosophical sophistication.
In 1980 Ramis made his name as a director of Caddyshack, a movie in which, Bill Murray legendarily tangled with a gopher. He ended his professional relationship with Murray in 1993, with Groundhog Day, a perfect movie where Murray tangles with a groundhog and all that he symbolizes. Somewhere along the way these two simpatico comic geniuses grew up and made one last classic piece of Americana that reflected that maturity and depth. Groundhog Day is better than Ghostbusters or Caddyshack by several metrics. It’s hilarious. But it also gets at an immortal lesson for men everywhere: Can you do better?
Groundhog Day is streaming on AMC+.