“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing mattered?”

So asks Bill Murray’s jaded meteorologist Phil Connors in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, after realizing that he is inexplicably trapped in Punxsutawney PA to relive the titular day, February 2, for an indeterminate amount of time.

Phil is the weatherman at WPBH-9 Action News in Pittsburgh, with a sarcastic attitude and ambitions to leave Western Pennsylvania for New York. But by dint of working in the major metro market nearest to Punxsutawney, he is forced to make the pilgrimage north each year for Groundhog Day, when a rodent (also named Phil) will come forth and look for his shadow. If Phil the rodent sees his shadow, we’re in for six more weeks of winter. If Phil the human waves his hands in front of his green screen just right, an anticipated blizzard will “push off to the east and hit Altoona.” Or so Phil the human seems to think.

Along for the ride north with Phil the human on that fateful February 1st is his cameraman Larry and the station’s new field producer Rita. Phil makes his fellow travelers quite aware of his thoughts on woodchuck weathermen and those who love them. But Rita is excited to make her first trip to Punxsutawney and see the festivities. After all, people like it!

“People are stupid, Rita.” Phil snarks. “People like blood sausage too.” When they arrive in town, Phil turns up his nose at the local hotel, and discovers that the thoughtful Rita has booked him at a local bed and breakfast instead. Such is Phil’s self-estimation that instead of appreciation, he simply acknowledges it as no more than his due as “the talent”. Rita and Larry share a chuckle at his ego.

Groundhog Day dawns cold and clear, with the clock radio going off at 6:00am to the strains of Sonny & Cher singing “I Got You Babe”, and 2 local DJs joking around. Phil makes his way to the dining room, mocks the owner of the B&B, and stomps off to the center of town to do his bit for the camera. Along the way he is accosted by an old high-school acquaintance named Ned Ryerson, who is now an insurance salesman attempting to pitch Phil on the merits of “single-premium life insurance”. Phil makes his escape at the cost of sinking his foot ankle-deep in a pothole filled with ice water.

He arrives with what appears to be just enough time to shoot his eye-rolling introduction of the morning’s event before the gentlemen of the groundhog’s Inner Circle bring forth the “Prognosticator of Prognosticators” and announce that Phil the rodent has reported to them in groundhog-ese that he has indeed seen his shadow. “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather” scowls Phil as he signs off.

The three Channel 9 employees load up their van and head for home, only to discover that Phil’s confident prediction on the evening news the day before that the blizzard would miss the Pittsburgh area was wrong. They are forced to turn back due to a wreaked 18-wheeler blocking the road, but not before a frenzied Phil screeches into the face of a state trooper that he “makes the weather!” They return to Punxsutawney where Rita and Larry decide to make the best of it and join the big party at the hotel, while Phil goes back to his bed & breakfast for an involuntarily cold shower and bedtime.

The next morning Phil assumes that the podunk local radio station is playing a tape instead of doing their morning show live, but he also finds himself having the exact same interactions as he did the day before. He brushes it off as deja vu as long as he can, until he arrives at the center of town to the exact same festivities as the day before. So instead of leaving town on February 2nd (the 2nd), Phil and Rita visit a doctor and then a shrink looking for an answer. Before bed that night, Phil breaks a pencil in half.

The next morning, the pencil is unbroken and Sonny & Cher are on the radio. A despondent Phil spends that evening drinking in a bowling alley with 2 locals, and asks them the question at the beginning of this essay. Well, they decide, if there’s no tomorrow, there can be no consequences, right? So they take off in one of the locals’ old Cadillac for a night of drunken mailbox smashing and playing chicken with a train. They’re arrested and thrown in the hoosegow, but sure enough, Phil wakes up the next morning in his bed at the B&B, unharmed.

So begins the first of four phases Phil makes his way through in his mysterious time loop, where he can remember everything that he did the day before, but everyone else is living February 2 for the first time. Phase One: Hedonism, where Phil takes full advantage of being able to do anything he wants just to wake up with everything reset to zero the next morning.

He spots an attractive woman in the local diner and finds out enough about her to trick her into thinking they knew each other in high school the next day so he can seduce her. He robs an armored car and uses the cash to buy a Rolls Royce, punches the aggravating Ned Ryerson in the face, and gleefully gorges on pastries in front of Rita, washing it all down by drinking coffee straight from the carafe.

Phase Two: Self-Destruction. Phil tires of hedonism and becomes despondent again until he snaps one day. He kidnaps the groundhog, steals a Chevy pickup, and leads the chair of the Groundhog Day committee, the local police, and Larry and Rita in the news van on a chase to a quarry, where he commits a woodchuck murder-suicide by driving off of a cliff with the groundhog. He still wakes up the next day, still February 2. Next he tries a toaster in the bathtub, followed by a leap off a bell tower.

In the process, of living the same day with the same people over and over, he’s reached near-omniscience about his surroundings. He finally gives up on ever escaping Groundhog Day, and moves to Phase Three: Win Rita.

At this point, he knows almost everything Rita likes and dislikes. He uses this to craft the perfect date night for her, but every night ends the same, sooner or later: with Rita delivering a hearty slap to his face. But in the process of deliberately getting to know what someone else likes, the seed has been sown for the final phase: Altruism.

Phil finally notices the elderly homeless man he’d been marching past each morning, and starts handing him money. Then one fateful night he takes the old man to a hospital, only to discover that February 2nd was the man’s last day on earth, as the man dies shortly after Phil brings him in. Phil embarks on a mission each day to make the old man’s final day a happy one. Then he broadens his scope to start saving kids falling from trees, fixing a flat tire for three old ladies, and learning to play the piano. Each day he becomes a little better, until he finally seems to have fine-tuned how he lives this one particular day to do the most good for those around him.

He starts with a warm welcome to Rita and Larry, an eloquent speech over the air for Groundhog Day, saving the kid falling out of a tree, fixing the tire, saving the Groundhog Day chairman from choking to death on a piece of steak, and capping it off by playing some hot jazz piano at the Groundhog Day dance, where he is feted as a friend to all of Punxsutawney.

Rita is stunned to see him like this (remember, for everyone else they went straight from February 1st to this version of February 2nd so she remembers the snarky Phil of February 1st) and bids every last cent in her purse to win him at the bachelor auction that closes the day’s festivities. Phil falls asleep with her on his shoulder.

And wonder of wonders, the next morning, it’s February 3rd! Phil kisses Rita, who asks why he wasn’t as passionate the night before. “It was the end of a very long day.”

And so ends the movie. Roll credits.

But of course this is a movie that reverberates long after the credits roll, because of the question Phil asks in the bowling alley, and the way his fellow drinkers respond, acknowledging that many, if not most people, already live what seems like the same day over and over. The common saying “Same s**t, different day” isn’t that far off from Phil Connors’ situation of “same s**t AND same day”.

What do you do about living a string of similar days? As I type this, I’ve finished a month of steady busyness at my work, where the mornings have felt like Groundhog Day, and Thursday feels like Wednesday feels like Tuesday feels like Monday. Many feel the same, especially those who are still limited in their routines by the coronavirus pandemic that is about to begin its third year.

In a world like this, what do we do? What do many do? The same things Phil Connors did. For some, it’s the path of hedonism; mindless pleasure-seeking. Binge drinking is up over the past two years. Tragically, so are suicides, as others reach their limit and take the exit. Unlike Phil, one life is all they, and we, get.

Phil’s third path, where he attempts to make Rita fall in love with him in a 24 hour period may seem charming, but chasing after a goal, even a worthwhile one, is still ultimately unfulfilling. And contra much (most?) of popular thought, a broken human being cannot be repaired by another somewhat less broken human being. There’s been a fair amount of discussion about the fact that Phil only breaks free of Groundhog Day after Rita “buys” him at the bachelor auction. But instead of the time loop ending as a reward for winning over Rita, one could just as easily say that the end of the time loop and winning over Rita were both the rewards for Phil learning to be a good person.

But this third phase does point Phil in the right direction and get him looking outside himself. What probably began as a sham to impress Rita grows into a genuine interest in others’ well-being. Instead of his prior life of hustling past the people around him, never to see most of them again, Phil keeps encountering the same people living the same day over and over again, until he is finally able to see those around him as individuals with their own histories, goals and dreams.

Unlike the disconnected world we now live in where one can habitually disconnect from others for the slightest reasons, Phil cannot escape Ned Ryerson, or the waitress at the diner, or the young couple getting married that day. And eventually, he finds that while he can’t derive meaning from someone else, he can find a meaning in helping those someones.

It’s a movie that draws on a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, with the Eastern idea of reincarnation until one reaches perfection as the most notable concept. One also sees a Stoic influence in Phil’s decision to make the most of the situation he is in. I think it is a misreading of the film to ascribe any specific worldview to it. The screenwriter and director were content to leave certain aspects (most significantly the reason why Phil was trapped in the time loop and then why he was freed from it) unexplained.

But it’s a great contribution to the world all the same. It’s entertaining, but also thought-provoking and inspiring. It doesn’t need to hammer you over the head with a specific philosophy, it’s willing to ask the questions and let you search for the answers.

As for where to find the answers, as a Christian I have to note my belief that there was once a man who did in reality what Phil Connors does in the movie: save everybody he could in a single day. But unlike Phil Connors, who was limited to a kid falling from a tree and a choking man, Jesus Christ could and did save everybody, even the old beggar who died in an alley.

And along that line, there’s one other thing I wanted to note about the final phase of Phil’s time in Groundhog Day. Having accepted that there doesn’t seem to be an end to his state, Phil’s newfound sense of timelessness allows him to develop talents that might otherwise have gone unused, for instance his becoming an excellent pianist. He also gets to know almost every person in town as a friend. It makes me think of what eternity in Heaven will be like. Freed from time constraints, each person in Heaven will have the ability to fully develop their God-given gifts, even ones that may have lain dormant or unrecognized while they were on earth. In addition, there will be unlimited time to get to know each and every person around us, in an unending community where there will never be an end to the time we can share with each other.

What a marvelous blessing that will be.