At the start, Phil isn’t all that different from any other Murray character. He’s cynical, sarcastic, egotistical; he hates his job doing the weather at a local Pittsburgh TV station, and treats his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) and his new producer Rita (Andie McDowell) with something halfway between indifference and contempt. The three of them drive to Punxsutawney so that Phil may perform his hated annual duty of reporting on the Groundhog Day festivities. He hates the town, ridicules the ceremony at Gobbler’s Knob, and is infuriated when a blizzard strands him in Punxsutawney another night. His anger mixes with confusion the next morning when he awakes in his room at the local bed and breakfast to discover that it is still Groundhog Day, and that he is the only one aware that the day is repeating itself.
Groundhog Day is proof that originality of premise is less important than quality of execution. The notion of a time loop, of a character or characters repeating the same period of time over and over again, is found in many works of science fiction, notably in Richard Lupoff’s 1973 short story, “12:01.” It’s not the premise that makes Groundhog Day great, but the way that premise is exploited to reveal and ultimately to change the character of Phil Connors. Most time loop stories in science fiction focus on the characters attempting to break free, to escape the loop and return to the normal progression of their lives. Phil is initially at a loss to understand what is happening to him, and even after he is able to make some sense of it, he sees no way to escape. Even death eludes him, since every time he commits suicide he finds himself waking up in bed again, bright and early on February 2nd. The story is then about how Phil accepts his situation and turns it to his advantage, first for selfish purposes like getting laid or robbing an armored car, and eventually for more satisfying pursuits like learning to play piano or speak French, or win the love of Rita.
Phil’s progress from a selfish egomaniac to a gallant altruist is easy to chart; he goes from deceiving a woman named Nancy into believing they were classmates in order to have sex with her, to charging down the sidewalk to catch a little boy who always falls out of a tree at precisely the same time. He even spends several days trying to save the life of a homeless old man, only to find that no matter how much he does, the old man always dies. By this point in the film Phil’s knowledge of events has given him the ability to do whatever he wants; the old man’s inevitable death proves there are still things out of Phil’s reach.
One of those things might be Rita (played by the useless Andie McDowell, whose charmless performance provides the film with its only major weakness). Phil tries at first to seduce her much as he did Nancy, but with no success. He takes her out on an endless series of dates, tweaking his behavior a little each time, hoping to hit on the right formula to win her over. He makes mental notes, sometimes out-loud, of her likes and dislikes. When Phil grows frustrated with his failure, he takes it out on Rita during his broadcast from Gobbler’s Knob: “If you want a forecast, you’re asking the wrong Phil. You wanna know about the weather, princess? Here’s a prediction: It’s gonna be cold, and it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.” Phil eventually overcomes his despair. He overcomes his selfishness and his cynicism as well. Only after he has been truly changed does Rita accept his affection and spend the night with him, allowing him to finally escape the time loop and wake up to February 3rd.
Writing so much about the deeper aspects of the movie, it’s easy to forget that it’s also funny as hell. Phil’s repeated run-ins with obnoxious insurance salesman Ned Ryerson are inspired, allowing Murray to start with the same set-up and get laughs a different way every time. And Phil’s suicidal phase is a masterpiece of black comedy, as he tries and fails to kill himself by jumping off a building, dropping a toaster in his bath, and walking in front of a truck, plus a litany of other methods we don’t get to see but which he casually relates to Rita over lunch.
The actual mechanism of Phil’s escape from Groundhog Day is never revealed, nor is what trapped him there in the first place. That’s not what the movie is about. Phil became trapped in the time loop because he needed to be there. He had a lot of growing up to do, maybe more than he could have done in the lifetime he had left. Who knows how many thousands of Groundhog Days he lived through before he finally got where he needed to be? The important thing is that he got there.