‘We bow at the altar of Groundhog Day’: concept copycats celebrate its 30th birthday (2023)

Groundhog Day has reached its 30th birthday – which is still three years and change short of the 33 years, 350 days it was once estimated Bill Murray’s waspish weatherman spent stuck in a time loop in the film. Viewed simply as a quirky comedy on its release, the film has since seen its reputation transform. And not only because “Groundhog Day” has become shorthand for the drudgery of any endlessly repeating scenario. In 2023, its influence and popularity are greater than ever.

Some people got it right away. David Lynch was an early admirer while Quentin Tarantino, in a 1994 interview to promote Pulp Fiction, gushed: “Groundhog Day is one of my favourite movies of last year, if not my favourite.” And the number of films which copy its structure has mounted up, from a sci-fi Groundhog Day on a train (Source Code), Groundhog Day as a horror (Happy Death Day), Groundhog Day with Tom Cruise (Edge of Tomorrow), Groundhog Day but he’s naked (the predictably awful Naked). Meanwhile the time-loop romcom has become a popular genre in itself.

“There’s a reason this concept is evergreen,” said Becky Sloviter, producer of Palm Springs (Groundhog Day with a couple). “We all wonder what it might be like if we [made] different choices.” Palm Springs’ co-producer and lead, Andy Samberg, was more direct: “We bow at the altar of Groundhog Day. It’s an incredible movie.”

Source Code writer Ben Ripley said: “All I had at the beginning was the impulse to tell a non-linear story with a structure like Groundhog Day.” Natasha Lyonne, co-creator and star of Netflix series Russian Doll, said her starting point was: “I wonder what kind of movie Groundhog Day would’ve been if it was four hours.”

Even Groundhog Day’s screenwriter, Danny Rubin, has copied his own homework: his award-winning musical version returns to London’s Old Vic stage for a second run this year. “I think I just opened up a new way of telling a story that people could look at and go: ‘Oh, I could use that to tell a different story,’” Rubin says now. “And you know Hollywood: they’re always looking for fresh and original ways to be unoriginal! But mostly I’m delighted. I knew when I started writing it that there were lots of ways to go with the idea. So I’m glad other people are picking up the ball and having fun with it.”

‘We bow at the altar of Groundhog Day’: concept copycats celebrate its 30th birthday (1)

More than anyone, Rubin understands the impact of his film. Soon after its release he began hearing from Buddhists, German monks, rabbis and Nietzschean philosophy students who all believed Groundhog Day was the perfect allegory for their particular worldview. The film was a moderate critical and commercial success on release but, despite a push from studio Columbia, it received a grand total of zero Oscar nominations. (The presidential comedy Dave got a nomination for best screenplay that year instead.)

US critic Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head in 2005 when he revisited the film for his Great Movies series, admitting he underestimated it on first viewing. “Groundhog Day is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable,” he wrote. “I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation.”

At the heart of it is Murray’s career-best performance. As director Harold Ramis foresaw, Murray was the only actor who could make the callous, narcissistic Phil Connors likable to the audience. “He seems to come by the nasty part quite honestly,” Ramis said wryly in the making-of documentary The Weight of Time. “Bill Murray is not a movie star by accident, he understands vanity and self-centredness.” Rubin is kinder, merely saying that Murray was “not afraid to be cruel”.

Rubin also had to act as an early buffer between Murray and Ramis, who had been regular collaborators since the 1970s but fell out during the making of the film. During the writer’s trip to New York with Murray to hone the lead character’s dialogue, if Ramis would call to discuss the film, Murray would shake his head and mouth the words: “I’m not here”.

‘We bow at the altar of Groundhog Day’: concept copycats celebrate its 30th birthday (2)

The actor’s note-perfect performance presented a challenge to Rubin when he began working on a stage version. If Murray was forever linked to the role, would people accept another Phil Connors? Help arrived when Murray joined Rubin to watch the musical during its Broadway run in 2017, offering his tacit approval to the show. The usually deadpan Murray was moved to tears as he watched the production; “visibly sobbing” as the New York Times reported.

“I noted [his reaction] and I thought it was remarkable,” says Rubin. “Bill came to the show at my request – because would people accept Groundhog Day without Bill Murray in it? I thought they needed permission from him and he was aware of that, so he was doing us a favour.

“I don’t doubt that the emotion was real. On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was exaggerating just to try to help us along. And then he thought it would be funny to come back the second night, sit in the exact same seat, wear the same clothes … So we had two days of press. He was being very generous to the show.”

skip past newsletter promotion

after newsletter promotion

Generosity and Murray may not have always gone hand in hand, but he may have felt a debt was owed to Rubin’s story. Murray, who was going through a divorce in 1993, was reportedly in full “Murricane” mode during the production, being difficult towards Ramis, hating the cold and complaining about being bitten by his co-star, the groundhog. This led to rumours that Murray hated the film. But it was possibly only the experience of filming it he loathed, as he has since described it as his finest work and said Rubin was “touched by God” when he came up with the idea.

Audiences have also come around to understanding that Groundhog Day offers more than first meets the eye. “It gave a name to the very common human experience of realising that you’re stuck,” says Rubin. “And that you can’t seem to get out of this repeating pattern of behaviours and consequences. People feel a connection in their own lives – and in society, in politics, in wars and international relations.”

“In the Covid pandemic, people started to feel it even more. And the movie not only gives it a name but offers some solutions. I believe it can make you feel hopeful when you’re stuck. People figure that if Phil can change, maybe they can too. And it is the process of repetition that really pushes him out of his negative patterns: he realises that he’d been looking at the world only from his perspective; all of a sudden, he realises there’s a universe in every single person around him and that makes his life bigger and better. That is something that’s available to everybody.”

‘We bow at the altar of Groundhog Day’: concept copycats celebrate its 30th birthday (3)

It may be that the lockdown, which trapped people in their own repetitive cycles, helps explain the sharp increase in time-loop romcoms. With Palm Springs in 2020, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things in 2021 and Meet Cute in 2022, Hollywood is currently averaging one a year. But the concept has also been used to highlight serious topics such as racism and brutality in the US police force. The Academy Award-winning 2020 short film Two Distant Strangers tells the story of a black graphic designer in New York who is shot dead by a police officer, only to wake up and repeat the same trauma every day. The film’s co-director, Martin Desmond Roe, wrote an essay on the Groundhog Day device while he was in college. In 2016, the even punchier film Groundhog Day for a Black Man – clocking in at four minutes – told a similar tale spiked with bleak humour.

These powerful shorts highlight the versatility of the concept. But the original film went down a different path. Rubin points out that in Groundhog Day, the worst day of Phil Connors’ life takes place under the exact same conditions as the best day of his life. The only difference is Phil himself, his attitude and actions.

It is an empowering message. Having exhausted indulgence and self-pity, Connors starts to understand he cannot control the world around him, only change how he acts within it. And also that compassion, empathy and helping others without expectation of reward is a route to happiness.

These subtle depths help explain why this timeless film about time, which focuses on the tedium of repetition is ironically so endlessly rewatchable. The other factor is that watching Bill Murray lamp hyperactive insurance salesman Ned Ryerson or pin a man to the wall and say “Don’t mess with me, porkchop” will never not be funny. It has struck a chord for 30 years and, appropriately, Groundhog Day is going absolutely nowhere.

  • Groundhog Day was released in the US in February 1993. The musical returns to the Old Vic in May.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Laurine Ryan

Last Updated: 09/28/2023

Views: 6404

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (77 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Laurine Ryan

Birthday: 1994-12-23

Address: Suite 751 871 Lissette Throughway, West Kittie, NH 41603

Phone: +2366831109631

Job: Sales Producer

Hobby: Creative writing, Motor sports, Do it yourself, Skateboarding, Coffee roasting, Calligraphy, Stand-up comedy

Introduction: My name is Laurine Ryan, I am a adorable, fair, graceful, spotless, gorgeous, homely, cooperative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.