Happy Groundhog Day! With the East Coast in the frosty clutches of cold and snow, it’s high time we turn to Punxsutawney, Pennyslyvania to see if Phil will emerge from his nook and condemn us to six more weeks of winter not. More importantly, it’s also the time of year we should take a moment to acknowledge another national institution: Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, which happens to celebrate its 20th anniversary this month.
It’s easy to undervalue (or even dislike) Groundhog Day as a goofy high-concept comedy, a gimmicky Twilight Zone cast-off, a sideways take on It’s A Wonderful Life. It shouldn’t be. As the critics and directors (including David O. Russell) who listed it on their 2012 Sight & Sound Greatest Films ballot can attest, Groundhog Day is not only a great film, it’s a veritable treatise on life. As such, it might be cinema’s greatest self-help manual, full of invaluable lessons about both the day-to-day minutia and profound things that can make our individual existences better.
We’ve gathered together ten of the many lessons found in the film (in no order of significance) so you might learn what Phil (Bill Murray) did without having to go through the ordeal of Ned Ryerson. For maximum enjoyment of this list, we recommend you listen to either Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” or “The Pennsylvania Polka” as you read along.
1. Don’t Set Your Alarm to a Radio Station On the off chance people even use traditional bedside alarms anymore (don’t we all just use our phones now?), Groundhog Day reminds us that it’s generally a bad idea to make your wake up noise a radio station. Even if you’re not going to wind up in a situation where you have to relive the same day and same song over and over again, who wants to risk the possibility of waking up to inane chatter or One Direction?
2. The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living Most us aren’t as self-involved, self-indulging, or self-celebrating as Phil is. He’s a man who never takes stock of his life and its philosophical failings, which is why the Socratic powers that be forcefully ensnare him. While it’s doubtful we’ll ever face such drastic corrective measures, Groundhog Day is a cautionary reminder that it might be good to occasionally invest in some self-reflection to catalyze self-improvement.
3. Don’t Be Ned Ryerson Yes, it’s true Groundhog Day emphasizes the value of getting to know people and learning to accept them the way Phil does with the hicks people of Punxsutawney. But Ned Ryerson remains unbearable. The man has no sense of boundaries or social cues, unnecessarily removes his hat, cackles like Ace Ventura over the misfortune of others, is the worst kind of insurance salesman, might be a little homophobic, and doesn’t even have the decency to know it’s “DING!” not “BING!”
4. Emotional Honesty Should Never Be Replaced by Sarcasm It’s easy to be sarcastic. In our sometimes unsentimental age, deflective humor and emotional distance can be a more comfortable way to go. It can also make you an asshole like Phil, who is sarcastic and ironically detached about everything. Phil mocks anything that might be even remotely sincere or authentic: people’s interests, lives, professions, and emotions. It facilitates his ability to care only for himself and keep a perpetual distance from others. Pretty much the opposite of the life values Groundhog Day is trying to impart: there is no greater way to engage with life and people than removing any barrier between yourself and emotional honesty. Even if you’re Bill Murray, and pretty much the amazing King of Sarcasm.
5. Test the Water Before Stepping into a Shower It was our general impression that most people don’t just strip down naked, hop into a shower and then turn on the water, leaving their fates in the hands of the Gods of Plumbing. Groundhog Day would appear to prove that wrong — to hilarious but unfortunate results. It’s not the only time Murray would have bad shower etiquette either. Learn from his mistakes.
6. You Can’t Plan a Perfect Day Anyone who has ever tried to plan the perfect first date knows that there’s no way to create perfect. It just happens. Phil tries to create the ideal day to prod Rita into falling in love with him, but it always fails. It’s partially because his intentions aren’t genuine, but also because he is forcing what can’t be forced. It’s only when he learns to live a full life that she spontaneously finds her way into it, and begins to share a day with him far better than the one he tried to construct earlier on. Groundhog Day beautifully reminds us that the best days of our lives are the ones we don’t plan for. They’re the ones that just happen to us.
7. Poetry Is the Best Insult If you’ve read any Shakespeare you know insulting is best when it involves poxes, thumb biting, and rhymes and meters. Sure, Rita could have just told Phil that he’s a self-centered asshole who will die unrecognized, but that doesn’t provide nearly the tongue lashing quoting Sir Walter Scott does.
8. Sometimes You Have to Reach Your End To Grow There’s a point in Groundhog Day when Phil’s looped existence becomes his nightmare. He starts killing himself (by really painful methods) to try to escape, but he can’t succeed. When he hits his lowest point, he confesses to Rita, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” More importantly, he says “I’ve come to the end of me. There’s no way out.” What he doesn’t realize is that coming to his end is the way out. It’s an existential reboot, a clean slate. Sometimes we have to realize we’re not the person we want to be anymore in order to propel us towards becoming someone better.
9. A Life of No Consequences Gets Boring The first few days of Phil’s perpetual do-over teases us with the vicarious pleasures of imagining what we would do if we could do anything without fear of consequences. Initially, it’s a lot of fun watching Phil eat whatever he wants, steal a groundhog, get into a high-speed pursuit, and pick up women. Our personal favorite is when he robs a bank, buys an ostentatious Mercedes, dresses like Clint Eastwood, demands to be called Bronco, and watches Heidi II. However, Groundhog Day confirms what many of us probably already suspected: living a life of constant whimsy and self-indulgent wish fulfillment would get boring and eventually a little depressing.
10. Happiness Is the Happiness of Others The antidote to Phil’s initial self-indulgence is finding humility and the desire to put others before himself — whether it’s buying his co-workers coffee, saving a child from a tree, or fixing an old lady’s flat tire. It wasn’t enough for Phil to change; his change required the helping of others. The film suggests therein lies life’s true rewards and the path to a meaningful existence. Because of Murray’s impish coyness, you can never quite tell if Phil truly enjoys improving people’s lives, but that just makes it all the more indicative that he has changed and become selfless. Helping others has turned him into the kind of person Rita can love, and therein lies his own true happiness.