Interpretations of this central mystery vary. But central to all is a morally complicated and powerful story arc to the main character. When Phil Connors arrives in Punxsutawney, he’s a perfect representative of the Seinfeld generation: been-there-done-that. When he first realizes he’s not crazy and that he can, in effect, live forever without consequences — if there’s no tomorrow, how can you be punished? — he indulges his adolescent self. He shoves cigarettes and pastries into his face with no fear of love-handles or lung cancer. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he declares as he goes for a drunk-driving spree. He uses his ability to glean intelligence about the locals to bed women with lies. When that no longer gratifies, he steals money and gets kinky, dressing up and play-acting. When Andie MacDowell sees him like this she quotes a poem by Sir Walter Scott: “The wretch, concentrated all in self / Living, shall forfeit fair renown / And, doubly dying, shall go down / To the vile dust, from whence he sprung / Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”
Connors cackles at her earnestness. “You don’t like poetry?” She asks. “I love poetry,” he replies, “I just thought that was Willard Scott.”
Still, Connors schemes to bed Rita with the same techniques he used on other women, and fails, time and again. When he realizes that his failures stem not from a lack of information about Rita’s desires but rather from his own basic hollowness, he grows suicidal. Or, some argue, he grows suicidal after learning that all of the material and sexual gratification in the world is not spiritually sustaining. Either way, he blames the groundhog and kills it in a murder-suicide pact — if you can call killing the varmint murder. Discovering, after countless more suicide attempts, that he cannot even die without waking up the next day he begins to believe he is “a god.” When Rita scoffs at this — noting that she had twelve years of Catholic school (the only mention of religion in the film) — he replies that he didn’t say he was “the God” but merely “a god.” Then again, he remarks, maybe God really isn’t all-powerful, maybe he’s just been around so long he knows everything that’s going to happen. This, according to some, is a reference to the doctrine of God’s “middle knowledge,” first put forward by the 16th-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, who argued that human free will is possible because God’s omniscience includes His knowledge of every possible outcome of every possible decision.
The point is that Connors slowly realizes that what makes life worth living is not what you get from it, but what you put into it. He takes up the piano. He reads poetry — no longer to impress Rita, but for its own sake. He helps the locals in matters great and small, including catching a boy who falls from a tree every day. “You never thank me!” he yells at the fleeing brat. He also discovers that there are some things he cannot change, that he cannot be God. The homeless man whom Connors scorns at the beginning of the film becomes an obsession of his at the end because he dies every Groundhog Day. Calling him “pop” and “dad,” Connors tries to save him but never can.
By the end of the film, Connors is no longer obsessed with bedding Rita. He’s in love with her, without reservation and without hope of his affection being requited. Only in the end, when he completely gives up hope, does he in fact “get” the woman he loves. And with that, with her love, he finally wakes on February 3, the great wheel of life no longer stuck on Groundhog Day. As NR’s own Rick Brookhiser explains it, “The curse is lifted when Bill Murray blesses the day he has just lived. And his reward is that the day is taken from him. Loving life includes loving the fact that it goes.”