This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still. So goes the old maxim that succinctly states how immensely hard it is for human beings to truly change. In the 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a cynical, sarcastic, generally unpleasant weatherman who it seems cannot be changed for the better even by the entrancingly wholesome charms and kindness of his beautiful co-worker/producer Rita (Andie MacDowell). As he reluctantly travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to report on the annual Groundhog Day festival, he exudes nothing but selfishness and shows a bitter disregard for the people around him.
Like the old maxim predicts, Phil does not seem likely to ever change his ways– that is, until he mysteriously begins to relive Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney over and over and over again. Stuck in this awful time loop, he searches desperately for a way out and eventually discovers that his only hope is to deny the selfishness in his heart and nobly put others before himself. This long but ultimately successful journey of self-discovery parallels our own daily struggles to overcome patterns of selfishness and sin by shifting our focus away from ourselves.
After Phil overcomes the initial shock of being stuck reliving the same day again and again, he realizes the self-gratifying purposes this curse can serve. “We could do whatever we want,” he says with excited realization to two drunken fellows he meets at a bowling alley. He then begins to do just that, engaging in reckless activity like driving on the railroad tracks and enjoying meaningless one-night stands with women he meets in town. As fun as this all is at first, it ultimately just leaves him feeling emptier than ever before, and he becomes quite depressed.
At the height of his depression, Phil tries to kill himself by driving off a cliff, hoping that this will finally free him from the agonizing time loop. He wakes up on Groundhog Day just like before, so he tries other methods of killing himself, but nothing works. Resigning himself to the apparent fact that he will never ever escape February 2 in Punxsutawney, he shifts his focus to trying to make his co-worker Rita fall in love with him. Over the course of many Groundhog Days, he learns her favorite drink (“I’ll have a sweet Vermouth on the rocks with a twist”), what she likes to toast to (“I always drink to world peace”), and her favorite ice cream (“Rocky Road!”), among other things. While this impresses Rita initially, she ultimately sees that Phil’s motivations are entirely selfish and have nothing to do with actually loving and caring for her.
As Phil finally realizes that his selfishness is an insurmountable barrier to giving Rita the true love and affection she longs for, he begins to shift his focus to helping other people. He reaches out to a homeless man, fixes a group of elderly ladies’ flat tire, and saves someone from choking at a party, among several other good deeds. His interactions with Rita begin to go far beyond just egotistically trying to coax her into bed, and he takes the time to actually listen to her and affirm how truly kind and wonderful of a person she is. This gradual shift from selfishness to altruism ultimately rescues Phil from the Groundhog Day time loop, and he leaves Punxsutawney as a profoundly changed and happier man.
There is much fruit we can glean from the hilarious and ultimately poignant story of Groundhog Day. Like Phil, each of us likely faces a daily struggle to overcome selfishness/negativity and joyfully put the needs of others before ourselves. We have habitual vices that we repeat over and over again, vices that break us down and can plunge us into the depths of gloominess and despair. It may sometimes feel like we are repeating the same rotten day over and over again, wanting desperately to rise above our average selves but failing miserably to do so. We may turn with considerable success to prayer and self-help books when stuck in these spiritual time loops, but at the end of the day, there is only one thing that will most assuredly save us from ourselves, and that is shifting our focus to others. As Mark Twain once said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer someone else up.” Phil Connors was inspired and empowered by this simple but beautiful message, and we can all be too.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.