Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a television weatherman in Pittsburgh who has ambitions, ones that don't include hanging around in this lowly position at the station: he thinks he's better than this, but then, Phil thinks he's better than a lot of things. For the past three years he has covered a February ceremony in the small town of Punxsutawney where a groundhog will emerge in front of the crowd and if he sees his shadow it means winter lasts another six weeks, but this fourth time, when Phil reluctantly travels out there with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), he promises will be his last. After all, who wants to get stuck with a dead end assignment like that over and over again?
Groundhog Day was underestimated when it was first released, certainly there were those who enjoyed it, but few thought it would go on to become the classic it is acknowledged as now. Back in 1993, it was just another of those gimmicky Hollywood comedies which would often star a Saturday Night Live comedian, they were ten a penny, and nobody expected this to distinguish itself. But then a funny thing happened, not simply funny ha ha because it was undoubtedly that, but funny peculiar as on watching this comic fantasy a strange profundity made itself clear, with the lead character learning the expected life lessons but not in the way anyone anticipated. There was a near-religious element to Phil's fate.
Near-religious because we never find out the reason behind the hapless weatherman's predicament, which could be a curse from God but could equally be a glitch in the universe which has doomed him to live the same day repeatedly. It's as if Phil has accidentally triggered an infinite lives cheat on life's great computer game, and now he's stuck in a loop he doesn't know how to get out of it, which has its benefits - he cannot die - but may also be a kind of hell - he cannot die. Unable to move on, he is trapped where only he knows what is going on: it's useless to try and explain it to anyone else, since once the clock hits six in the morning again everything is reset. Naturally, this places Phil in a privileged position, and in director Harold Ramis's adaptation of Danny Rubin's script, we in the audience have that privilege as well.
At first it's amusing to see the callous Phil get his comeuppance, as he treats everyone with barely concealed sarcasm and we are encouraged to want to see him suffer, not least because Murray was so excellent at portraying the snarky persona we had been so used to from his previous movies, and watching that personality negotiate supposed lesser mortals was always entertaining, with Ramis expertly surrounding him with goodnatured naivety which shouldn't stand a chance - initially it doesn't. Now Phil has realised what is happening to him, he continues to step on people for his own advantage, using his newfound knowledge to work out how to play the inhabitants of the town, yet there's only so much he can do before after - how long? Weeks? Months? Years? - his exploitative nature begins to pall and he seeks something more fulfilling. How about romance?
Rita's a nice girl, can he get her to fall in love with him? He's still manipulating, but she sees through his ruse every time, no matter how far he gets with her he always ends up with a slap in the face because he hasn't really changed. Therefore a depression sets in as the familiarity breeds contempt, and suicide seems the only way out, leading to a great scene where he kidnaps the groundhog and races away to drive into a quarry with a fiery death. Except he's not getting away that easily, and right after it's six o'clock again; we should be thankful Phil's misanthropy doesn't extend to taking it out on his fellow man with violence, indeed after a while he comes to believe he has a godlike status in this world he cannot escape from, though even then in a surprisingly moving scene he cannot save the life of the elderly down and out no matter how much he tries. You came to Groundhog Day for the laughs, but left with unexpected, reassuring philosophy and a more unexpected delight in seeing Murray's usual sardonic curmudgeon redeemed, utterly convincingly. Music by George Fenton.