Could modern fans handle Groundhog Day's vagueness?

Contributed by
Feb 2, 2018

For movie fans, the 2010s have been marked by a heap of fan-made YouTube videos that are designed to point out the flaws or theorize about possible mysteries related to just about every possible big new movie, as well as plenty of beloved classics. It's almost more remarkable when a mainstream blockbuster doesn't get the Honest Trailers or Everything Wrong With Movie X treatment, as much as it is when one of those movies doesn't commit too many supposed "sins."

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the rare mainstream movie that has amazingly avoided the Honest Trailers treatment, in spite of having a sci-fi high concept at its core: it's Groundhog Day, a film that steadfastly avoids details of any kind.

If you're on the Internet, you probably know how it goes, but here's a recap: Groundhog Day is about vain and self-involved weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray), who grudgingly travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the local festival celebrating the infamous groundhog who predicts how much longer winter will last. Phil is shocked and unnerved to wake up the next morning to realize that it's Groundhog Day once again. He's stuck in a time loop from which there appears to be no escape, as being "stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned" doesn't stop Phil from waking up to the alarm clock on February 2, again and again and again. Eventually, Phil betters himself as a person and falls in love with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), escaping the time loop, presumably for good.

If Groundhog Day was made today, leave aside who we would want to fan-cast as Phil or Rita, or even the character played by a very young Michael Shannon for about two minutes. (Yes, if you somehow didn't already know, Michael Shannon is in Groundhog Day. Contain your shock.) How on earth would this movie be made today without answering, as clearly as possible, how it is that Phil Connors gets stuck in this time loop? When the loop begins, it's completely inexplicable and remains as such. Phil does not meet anyone in Punxsutawney who understands what he's going through, a Doc Brown to his bewildered Marty McFly. Phil just ... is stuck in a perpetual February 2.

 

When Phil gets himself unstuck, it's because he, like Ebenezer Scrooge, has truly understood the full error of his ways and become a good person, not just to Rita, but to the small-town denizens who he previously derided. (Murray is just as good at selling his emotional transformation as he is in smug moments, as when Phil presumes that a bed-and-breakfast proprietor doesn't know how to spell "espresso.") But Phil never becomes informed that becoming a good person will help him escape the loop. He just changes himself gradually.

Plenty of high-concept comedies try to provide some explanation for what's happening to the protagonist. Liar Liar, in which Jim Carrey is forced to tell the truth at all costs, implies that the lead character's son made a birthday wish that magically comes true. In The Santa Clause, Tim Allen becomes Kriss Kringle because his character puts on the red-lined coat after inadvertently killing the Christmas icon. In Big, young Josh Baskin turns into a Tom Hanks-sized adult overnight because a fortune-teller machine grants his wish to become big. Groundhog Day just ... is about a guy stuck in a time loop, without even cursory justification.

Twenty-five years have not worn down any of Groundhog Day's charms. It remains one of the funniest modern comedies and represents the true shift in Bill Murray's career, which has since been typified by his collaborations with indie auteurs such as Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. Although Groundhog Day famously led to the dissolution of Murray's friendship with director and co-writer Harold Ramis, it's hard to see anything but genius on screen. Murray's performance offers subtle line deliveries like "Well, it's Groundhog Day ... again," as well as emotional moments, such as when Phil has to learn that a homeless man he walks by every morning is always going to die that night.

Such grace notes amid the science fiction core of Groundhog Day are what make the film so special. Theories have sprung up surrounding the film, but they primarily focus on exactly how many days Phil spends on Groundhog Day; it's not just considering how many times he dies or kills himself, but the various skills he learns, the ways he's able to memorize Jeopardy! answers, and even knowing the time and place to save a kid from falling out of a tree.

Actor Eddie Deezen has claimed that the second draft of the script came right out and directly answered how Phil is in the time loop: a vindictive ex-girlfriend curses him to spend 10,000 years on the same day, and only when Phil and Rita share a truly romantic kiss does he free himself.

Here, perhaps, is one of the reasons why it's better that Groundhog Day remains a mystery at its core (since the finished product does not even allude to an ex-girlfriend in this way), and why it avoids the CinemaSins/Honest Trailers treatment. This movie does not need to explain anything about Phil Connors' predicament. The sharp script, Ramis' snappy direction, Murray's multidimensional performance, and handfuls of quotable lines allow for the lack of explanation to drift right on by. We do not need to know why Phil is in a time loop, because the movie is so expertly made that such questions are either unimportant or could only have wildly disappointing answers. (A vengeful ex? Really?)

Maybe Groundhog Day will get an Honest Trailer one day; maybe someone's prepping that to go up today on its anniversary. But this film is remarkable not just for its humor and pathos, but for presenting a big science fiction concept, wrapping it up in a comic style, and never worrying about holding the audience's hands. Groundhog Day, like the best movies, presumes its audience will follow in its footsteps and does so correctly.