Flawed Faith: Groundhog Day and Moral Seriousness

Spoilers Below for Groundhog Day

Sometimes a piece of art works in spite of the circumstances of its conception. Sometimes it gains an entirely new life unintentionally as a result of some minor detail of its conception that wasn’t foreseen at the time. This has definitely been the case for 1993’s Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day which has become surprisingly long lasting for a mid-tier comedy film. That’s not to say comedy is a junky genre or innately disposable by its conception. A lot of popular art is primarily conceived as a creature for the moment that isn’t expected to have a long shelf life past after its opening weekend. Think about all of those random DVDs that wind up at the bottom of used bargain bins that will never be watched again.

That’s not to say a movie like Nacho Libre wasn’t mildly amusing in the moment. What it does mean is that art is that which transcends the moment and lasts. One of the best signs that a piece of art is timeless is that you get easily shocked when you realize how much time has passed since it was first released. I’m sure many of you will do a double take when I say that Groundhog Day is a 26-year-old movie. The same is true of most great pieces of art. People still adore Star Wars while Krull, Space Mutiny, and Starchasers feel dated and embarrassing.

What can be most surprising however is what actually does manage to reach this timeless status. Groundhog Day isn’t a wildly unknown or unpopular 90s comedy, but it’s gained a fascinating new half-life since its release as a cult-hit comedy film that continues to be revisited yearly by a very loyal contingent of fans. Part of what makes that contingent fascinating is how overtly religious many of film’s fans are. There is a surprising contingent of religious people of multiple faiths including multiple sects of Christianity that have embraced what is otherwise a rather frivolous comedy film about a weather-predicting rodent.

It wasn’t some clandestine Christian film or written out as a profound treatise on morality. It was initially conceived as a much longer, darker philosophical story by screenwriter Danny Rubin before Harold Ramis and Bill Murray reworked and improvised it into a much more conventional three-act comedy in line with the kinds of films the two of them had already worked on. If anything, the film should’ve turned out a much less religiously inclined film than it did merely by the circumstance of being a low priority Hollywood comedy by an overtly secular creative team. Despite all that it’s become fascinatingly embraced by the kinds of movie fans who normally scorn Hollywood’s casual flippancy in regards to morality.

Billy Murray plays Phil Conners. A snarky, cosmopolitan elitist working as a local weatherman on the cusp of a massive promotion to the big leagues at a larger network. Unfortunately for him, he’s forced to fulfill his yearly duty of performing a fake on-the-ground segment at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where Groundhog Day is celebrated by the yearly groundhog revealing whether or not he sees his shadow. The trip is of course miserable. The water is freezing cold, the people annoy him, and the ceremony is nothing but pedestrian to him. His producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) loves the atmosphere of the town and enjoys the people’s ability to celebrate through the night.

Phil attempts to leave the city before realizing that the city is caught in an unexpected blizzard that’s blocked the roads off from the outside world and damaged the phone lines out of the city. Resigned to another night in his own personal nightmare, he returns to the hotel. The next morning, he wakes up yet again on Groundhog Day and proceeds to repeat the events of the first day. Thus Phil begins his personal journey through his own personal purgatory. We don’t know for sure how long it happens but Phil becomes trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle of Groundhog day wherein nothing he does can allow him to escape the cycle and which there are no consequences to his actions.

The movie from here on out becomes a fascinating philosophical journey through Phil’s existential nightmare. While there are no consequences to his actions, he is still doomed to the mundanity of his life day after day life at the end of every cycle. He can be as self-destructive as he wants to be and he tries it but there’s no true death in the aftermath. The first thing he does after realizing he’s trapped in the loop is to start gorging himself and living life as though there is no consequence to his actions. He drives drunk, nearly gets hit by a train, starts stealing money, and he starts using his ability to learn information about attractive women so that he can take advantage of them sexually. He even starts to conceive himself as something of a God-like being whose powers of deduction are merely empowered by his ability to memorize every minor facet of this one particular day in the life of Punxsutawney. His indulgence and belief in his power quickly wane however when he realizes his power can’t give him the things he truly wants or the power to help resolve unresolvable situations.

Phil falls into a suicidal rampage and attempts to kill himself in multiple extreme ways, up to and including Groundhog murder-suicide pact. When he realizes that won’t work, he resigns himself yet again and actually starts getting involved in the lives of the people of Punxsutawney. He learns to play piano, reads poetry, and begins getting involved in the lives of the townsfolk. In several instances, he becomes so intimately familiar with the town that he is able to learn when to stop people from dying of choking or from getting injured. He does have to learn however that in some instances no amount of preordained knowledge can allow him total control over his circumstances, which he learns after trying in vain to save a dying old man. By the end, Phil is about to escape the time loop he’s been trapped in by embracing the sincerity and genuine selflessness his character lacked from the outset. It’s not entirely clear why the loop stops but the moral is implicit. You can build a better meaningful life by living for others and improving yourself.

Much of the film’s fascinating half-life has emerged as part of the film’s implicit moralism. It’s not the wacky groundhog antics or time travel that makes the film so widely remembered (otherwise Murray’s other rodent based comedy Caddyshack would be just as respected). Phil’s journey from selfish elitist to heartfelt selflessness defines the film and why it’s retained surprising longevity in cultural memory. As discussed in National Review’s 2005 piece on the film (that’s been run as a headline every year on Groundhog Day since), the movie’s reinvigoration can be attested to the film’s overt religiosity. It’s been embraced by every major religious group including Christians of all stripes, Jewish groups, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, existentialists, absurdists, nihilists, and atheists as one of the more profound examples of a modern morality play to come out of the past three decades of Hollywood filmmaking.

It’s not hard to see why. Superficially, resurrection and reincarnation are themes present in most major Abrahamic and Eastern religions and Groundhog Day’s central premise certainly apes the concept of multiple lives to great effect. What truly appeals to the religiously minded amongst us is its moral seriousness. It’s a wacky movie with only sparse direct references to religion (Rita states she went to Catholic School) but it doesn’t shy away from the darkness of life. It owns up to the fact that most of life is lived in drudgery, in quiet desperation for greater circumstances that the cards were played. It understands that the closest we can reach heaven or nirvana on Earth comes from improving our own internal lives and that improvement allows us to go out into the world as stronger, happier actors with the power to change the world for the better. It’s a powerful statement about how our actions have a profound impact on the quality of our lives.

In that sense, the movie shares a lot of thematically and conceptually with Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Whereas that movie existed within the early 20th century’s fascination with the tension between the individual and society, Groundhog Day is a movie that can only come out of late 20th/early 21st-century cynicism and malaise. There’s no creeping evil at the outskirts threatening to consume Phil’s world. Phil’s life is entirely based on what he puts into it. Each of the film’s digressions is a philosophical exploration of sorts. Phil’s periods of indulgence, suicidal agony, and finally selflessness express the spiritual atrophy and growth inherent in the way people live their lives beyond mere material consequences. Hedonism and egotism only serve to put him at a distance from the things in his life that would actually make him happy. Self-improvement and engagement with others is the only path to salvation.

As Christians, this spiritual decline is inherent in our philosophy. We understand spiritual death and the mundane torture that modernity can heave onto the human soul. A cursory viewing of modern skepticism and humanism shows an innate preference for the modern and a rejection for the wisdom of the ages. People casually ascue wisdom in favor of convenience or favorability. Faith puts us at odds with modernity and makes us unworldly and perceivably intolerant. Yet for the worldly and cynical that life proves to be unfulfilling. Modernity demands easy answers and pleasing to our basic whims. Christianity is very upfront about the fact that being a moral Christian involves denying one’s self some Earthly pleasures to some degree. Depending on your denomination of the faith this can mean anything from limiting what food you eat certain days of the week to entirely denying one’s self alcohol. The end goal is the same. Living for the moment in a materialistic sense can be spiritually deadening.

Bill Murray and Harold Ramis clearly didn’t set out to make a movie this overtly religious in spirit. Truthfully much of this is merely unintentional subtext. The movie’s concepts and ideas were largely an accident of circumstance. Ramis was a practicing Buddhist for part of his life and a formerly secular Jew and Murray is famously indifferent to religion. Apathy and snark are the bread and butter of his public persona. Yet even with Murray himself, we see the snark fade away when the rubber hits the road. If you wanna see his best performance in years, watch his live reactions to the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series, which he was in attendance for every game. It’s the face of a man who waited his entire life for a once in a lifetime miracle whose life has been made complete. He’s not a man with a heart of stone. If his new Netflix documentary The Bill Murray Stories is to be believed, he’s quite a freewheeling, playful, and giving man in real life.

That’s part of why Groundhog Day is so wonderfully subversive by modern Hollywood standards. In a modern world that demands conformity and secularism, the film is so utterly infused with sincere calls for selflessness and sensitivity that it can’t help but stand out. Much of the wisdom and moral seriousness of Groundhog Day is lost on the parts of the world that have abandoned faith. We’ve become such a sedentary and instantly reactionary culture. As we see with work like Jordan Peterson is doing with his message to “clean up your room”, even basic realities about taking care of your life from the ground up and taking responsibility for life are lost to generations.

Somehow this mid-budget comedy from 26 years ago is bursting at the seams with the kind of Christian loving kindness and responsibility that has been lost to the world. It goes to the central point that I’ve tried to make the driving force of this series. We see Christ in so many things no matter how the artist intends to express his story. This little film made haphazardly in a small town with a team of creatives not trying to impart the wisdom of the ages managed to make one of the most morally serious films ever made.

To close, I’ll note that I’ve actually had the opportunity to visit Woodstock, Illinois where the film was shot. I was shooting an interview series with local Chicago writers about the release of Orson Welles’ final film on Netflix and I took the opportunity to visit several locations downtown including the park and the Opera house which was erroneously presented as a hotel. The town takes the fact that the movie was shot there very seriously and hosts a yearly screening of it every Groundhog Day at the Classic Cinemas downtown, which has coincided with a small yearly celebration. It clearly means a lot to the people of Woodstock as it does to the millions of people who’ve seen the film since it was initially released.

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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