There are films people like, films people love and films that are stone-cold untouchable classics. Groundhog Day falls into the latter category, about as close as any creative work gets to being universally beloved.
If you haven’t seen it (which you have, everyone has), the film follows Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, a weatherman and massive jerk, as he visits Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (containing the cheerfully named area of Gobbler’s Knob) for the annual Groundhog Day celebrations on February 2nd. After a day of mainly being a dick, he goes to bed and wakes up in the morning to find it’s February 2nd again. He keeps reliving the day over and over again, resetting to the morning of Groundhog Day every time. He goes through phases of confusion, cynicism, nihilism, optimism, horniness, rage, everything, resetting every time to 6 a.m. that same day. It’s 96 minutes of cinematic perfection, both incredibly charming and heartbreakingly lonely, equally beloved by Buddhist monks, existential philosophers and people that just appreciate a good bit of Bill Murray yelling and falling in puddles.
None of which means we can’t ruin it for everyone by asking ourselves, in light of the actual Groundhog Day looming, how long after the happy ending would Phil Connors bite the big one?
Think about it. On the morning of February 3rd, when he wakes up in bed next to Andie McDowell’s Rita, it all seems like a gloriously happy ending. But the dude’s been through the wringer. Surely the best he can expect is a lifetime of being perpetually confused about what did and didn’t happen, suffering befuddled flashback symptoms akin to hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder and never quite sure whether the end of his life was coming too slowly or too fast.
The inescapable time-loop idea has been revisited as an idea with things like Russian Doll, Happy Death Day and Edge of Tomorrow, and this week the largest deal in the history of the Sundance Festival was made for Palm Springs, another riff on the concept. Novelist James Smythe offers up a terrifying variation of it in The Explorer, in which a character trapped in a similar situation degrades physically and psychologically with every loop, so I asked him how he thought Phil would fare following his ordeal.
“Phil would be dead before he’s even begun to live after the end of the movie,” he tells me. “The sheer relief of stepping out of the loop — and having proven the lack of existence of an afterlife, and of having been able to fundamentally break what we understand time to be, and the knowledge he’s amassed — would give him thoughts far beyond the normal. To suggest he would ever be happy living with Rita in the place where he was static is insane: He understands her on a level far beyond normal, far beyond that which she will ever understand him. Basically, he’s transcended to something like godhood, except with the power stripped from him. And I think it would break him. He would, I think, ultimately try to see if he could die for good this time. And he would.”
Death has, after all, meant little to Phil over the course of the film. There are different theories about how long Phil spends in his cycle, from a few years (long enough to learn French, ice sculpture, auto repair and a few musical instruments) to 10,000 years — that’s the figure cited by director and co-writer Harold Ramis and mentioned by Connors himself in one draft of the script. So even if he didn’t go down the weakened-demigod route Smythe proposes, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think he might end up crushed by a bus the same day he gets out of the cycle. He’s run out of the hotel into the same traffic 3,650,000 times, and would skip through the traffic of February 2nd effortlessly — February 3rd’s traffic is another thing entirely.
If he gets through that, and doesn’t immediately get overexcited and overindulge in every substance and vice previously unavailable to him now that he’s free of the confines of Punxsutawney, probably to the point of expiry, he has two enormous things to get over: a lengthy traumatic experience, and being freed from an extremely restricted way of living.
According to psychologist Roderick Orner of Lincoln University, after traumatic incidents, people can find themselves reliving and re-experiencing them — not a great prospect for Phil, considering his traumatic incident was in itself a hundred-century series of relivings and re-experiences. What do you end up with then? Trauma squared? Hideous. Christ.
Then there’s adjusting to temporal freedom. “Transitioning from living in a very narrow and restricted environment — for instance, prisoners, people who have been held hostage, or people who have been in the military where things are highly structured and organized — to a less predictable life can be very difficult,” says Orner. One of Orner’s fields of expertise is repetition, which is something everyone has in their lives, but at different scales and to different ends: On the one hand there’s talking to your children the way you were spoken to by your own parents, and on the other, there’s leaving one violent relationship to enter into another.
Phil doesn’t necessarily have an easy time ahead of him. “Breaking out of any cycle can evoke very intense fear,” says Orner. “When we’re constantly repeating, we’re on familiar ground. It might not be very pleasant, but it’s familiar. When you break out of that, you’re in territory you haven’t been in before, which is frightening.”
So whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be easy. Ultimately, nobody is going to know more about Phil Connors’ fate than the man who created him — Danny Rubin, who wrote the original script, then rewrote it with the film’s director, the late Ramis, and subsequently worked on the musical and a book on, er, how to write Groundhog Day.
“The short answer is that I didn’t think about Phil’s continuing life at all when I wrote the screenplay, and very little between then and now,” says Rubin. “I had one imagining of Phil as a wise recluse. However, although I’m sure Phil would have fun things to say, I wouldn’t call his perspective ‘wisdom.’ Like me, he would know that he’s really an idiot, and his years of getting it wrong would have convinced him that he’s always capable of misinterpretation of even his own life.”
“The most interesting thing about the story, to me, was always the recognition that breaking out of these patterns that make us feel stuck is something we actually do have the power to do,” Rubin continues. “How Phil ultimately faces his death might actually depend on what day it happens and how he’s feeling on that particular day. Would he welcome it because he’s ready? Would he fight against it because he’s so in love with his life? I’m not sure his reaction to death would necessarily be differentiated from any of us. In the end, I believe, his extraordinary life wasn’t really so different from ours.”
So basically, it’s the bus thing, or the I-am-a-god-and-must-destroy-myself thing. Either way, there’s probably a reason the credits rolled when they did. Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!