THOROUGHLY POSTMODERN PHIL
A recap is in order. Bill Murray, the movie’s indispensible and perfect lead, plays Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman with delusions of grandeur (he unselfconsciously refers to himself as “the talent”). Accompanied by his producer and love interest, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman (Chris Elliott), Connors goes on assignment to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pa., at which “Punxsutawney Phil” — a real groundhog — comes out of his hole to reveal how much longer winter will last. Connors believes he’s too good for the assignment — and for Punxsutawney, Pittsburgh, and everything in between. He is a thoroughly postmodern man: arrogant, world-weary, and contemptuous without cause.
Rita tells Phil that people love the groundhog story, to which he responds, “People like blood sausage, too, people are morons.” Later, at the Groundhog Festival, she tells him: “You’re missing all the fun. These people are great! Some of them have been partying all night long. They sing songs ’til they get too cold and then they go sit by the fire and get warm and then they come back and sing some more.” Phil replies, “Yeah, they’re hicks, Rita.”
Phil does his reporting schtick when the groundhog emerges and plans to head home as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, a blizzard stops him at the outskirts of town. A state trooper explains that the highway’s closed: “Don’t you watch the weather reports?” the cop asks. Connors replies (blasphemously, according to some), “I make the weather!” Moving on, the cop explains he can either turn around to Punxsutawney or freeze to death. “Which is it?” he asks. Connors answers, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” Reluctantly returning to Punxsutawney, Connors spends another night in a sweet little bed and breakfast run by the sort of un-ironic, un-hip, decent folks he considers hicks.
The next morning, the clock radio in his room goes off and he hears the same radio show he’d heard the day before, complete with a broadcast of “I Got You Babe” and the declaration, “It’s Groundhog Day!” At first, Connors believes it’s an amateurish gaffe by a second-rate radio station. But slowly he discovers it’s the same day all over again. “What if there is no tomorrow?” he asks. “There wasn’t one today!”
And this is the plot device for the whole film, which has seeped into the larger culture. Indeed, “Groundhog Day” has become shorthand for (translating nicely) “same stuff, different day.” Troops in Iraq regularly use it as a rough synonym for “snafu,” which (also translated nicely) means “situation normal: all fouled-up.” Connors spends an unknown number of days repeating the exact same day over and over again. Everyone else experiences that day for the “first” time, while Connors experiences it with Sisyphean repetition. Estimates vary on how many actual Groundhog Days Connors endures. We see him relive 34 of them. But many more are implied. According to Harold Ramis, the co-writer and director, the original script called for him to endure 10,000 years in Punxsutawney, but it was probably closer to ten.
But this is a small mystery. A far more important one is why the day repeats itself and why it stops repeating at the end. Because the viewer is left to draw his own conclusions, we have what many believe is the best cinematic moral allegory popular culture has produced in decades — perhaps ever.