The Existentialism of Groundhog Day (1993)

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Groundhog Day Philosophy Essay

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Nietzsche
  • Camus
  • Sartre
  • Conclusion


"You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life," [Groundhog Day] ominously speaks the protagonist of this modern-day version of an ancient myth and/or spin on a theory of Nietzsche's.

In Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Phil, an embittered weatherman that suddenly finds himself in a seemingly infinite time loop replaying the titular Groundhog Day over and over again, starting and ending at 6 AM. A state of shock follows the initial incredulousness, as Phil wanders about a pretty exact replica of the first day whilst asking around to see if anybody knows what's wrong with him, even asking for professional help. This is followed by a period where he uses his immortality and lack of consequence for his actions to his own advantage, stealing money and driving some drunks around like a maniac, after which he tries to kill himself in every way possible. When that doesn't work, he decides that the only way he wants to live out this monotonous existence is to live the best day he possibly can, and only once he lives the "perfect day" of saving many people from death and getting the girl, his producer Rita, does the tortuous cycle end.

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Groundhog Day presents to us the embodiment of multiple veins of existentialist thought, mainly of Camus and Nietzsche and Sartre, twisted in its own Hollywood rom-com kind of way. Groundhog Day deals first and foremost with an altered form of Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence, as well as including the existential tenet that all people are isolated and alienated from each other.


Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence states that we are living a life that we have lived an infinite number of times, and will continue to do infinitely more, without realizing it. While Nietzsche encourages people to accept this and to improve their lives because of it, his theory assumes that we can't, because we have repeated the same actions we would've undertaken with this newfound enlightenment an infinite number of times, but we'll overlook that. Phil definitely does realize the weight of his situation, though nobody around him seems to, as they are in a much better position, oblivious to the existence of this absurd quality of reality. This is acutely noticeable in one of the many scenes in which Phil wakes up to the clock striking 6:00 AM, when his days all reset. After years of getting to know everybody in a certain coffee shop he would meet Rita, his producer in, to learning everything about her so that he might convince her of his predicament, to perfecting his actions and language in a way that would impress Rita during that day, he finally managed to do just that one day. She realized his situation, showing sympathy and a willingness to help. Then, upon waking up, he realizes that all of that was for nothing, he really was alone in his situation. Alienated; when he walked out of his hotel room to go see Rita once more, she wouldn't recall anything of the seemingly perfect day that she had lived with Phil in the previous recurrence. And the events that ensued after Phil got into the car with two wasted drunkards, Ralph and Gus, parallel this. Gus, upon being asked by Phil what he would do if there was no tomorrow, said this: "No tomorrow? That would mean there would be no consequences, there would be no hangovers. We could do whatever we wanted!" [Groundhog Day]. And with this nihilistic philosophy at the forefront of his mind, chaos ensues, in which Phil plays chicken with a train, gets the cops to chase his car, and crashes into a few empty cars and offers to take the cop's order that came to arrest him. But, then, none of that matters when he wakes up the next day, because he is isolated from everything in his world. He could do it again, but to what end? It's already happened, and none of that would matter anyways. It's this nihilism that drives Phil to suicide as a way out of this absurd reality that he can't make any sense of. "It's the same thing every day, clean up your room, stand up straight, pick up your feet, take it like a man, be nice to your sister, don't mix beer and wine ever, Oh yeah, don't drive on the railroad tracks" [Groundhog Day].


Groundhog Day presents the existential tenet that absurdity is the natural state of the universe in this sense: Phil is a modern-day Sisyphus, the absurd anti-hero from Greek mythology, living out what seems to be an eternal punishment. Just as Sisyphus was condemned to forever roll a huge stone up a hill, only for it to roll back down once he reached the top, Phil believes that he is to live February 2nd for eternity, an exhausting ordeal of a day for him the first time it rolls around. Albert Camus' interpretation of the myth states that Sisyphus must have, somewhere along the line, accepted his fate and learned to be happy with it. In this way, his existence is still meaningless, but all that matters to his mind is the way in which he perceives it, and with this mindset of acceptance even happiness becomes possible. This reflects the ending of the movie quite well, when Phil finally lives his "perfect life" and breaks free of the simulacrum of Groundhog Day that he had been living for so long. "Anything different is good" [Groundhog Day], he murmurs to Rita on the morning of February 3rd. But, the repetition of life only continues after February 2nd. Our daily lives, Camus said, are composed of near-identical days stringed together in a row, following many of the same patterns. We meet many of the same people, wake up the same way usually, follow the same routines, repeat the same 26 letters stringed together in different patterns to communicate, etcetera. Even when repeating Groundhog Day over and over again, there was always variation to the approach in which Phil took, so in essence it was just like any ordinary day. Just like Sisyphus, the repetition in his life will only continue. It's his attitude towards this repetition that ever mattered, and was the only thing that truly changed to allow the transmutation of his simulacrum of reality into something entirely different, with different rules. And this time, happiness is very much achievable in the repetition of life, whereas Phil pre-Groundhog Day found the repetition of his day job to be one of the worst possible fates imaginable. "Someday someone's gonna' see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don't have a future," he states early on in the film, stark contrast to the ending when he decides to remain in Punxsutawney with Rita.


Phil came to realize, throughout the 10-40 years he spent replaying the same day over and over again, the million-and-one things he was free to do with just that single day of his life, something that Sartre spent a good deal of his writing musing over. This ability to pursue every possibility he could think of, coupled with the realization that he would never run out of options of different things to do, although he most definitely would run out of hours every single day, resulted in a lot of angst that pushed him to try suicide many, many times. From recklessly playing Chicken with a train and purposefully getting the police to chase him and knocking up any chick he took a fancy for that he could get in a single day, to figuring out the "perfect day" that he could live, Phil did it all, everything he could think of. He was confined to a 24-hour time window in everything he chose to do, yet had infinite options to pursue. And the extremely absurd thing is, it only increases when we think of the average lifetime we live as a species, in which far more options are possible. With this knowledge must come a realization, on February 3rd, that Phil would never again be able to live out so many options in a single day, and that with every decision he makes, or doesn't make, he destroys every single other possible life he could have led, every other person he could've been, everything he could've done otherwise.


That's some serious existential stuff, and although it isn't directly stated, it was very plainly implicit throughout the entire film to me, especially the end. I expect most people at the end of their first watch of the movie felt a thrill of excitement at the prospect of the lack of consequences and the unlimited retries at that single day of life Phil got, but there is a realization somewhere along the line of the absurdity of that scenario, and pushing it further the absurdity of reality as we know it, which has infinitely more options to choose from than Phil explored in that single day of his life, and infinitely less time in which to explore those options. And always a consequence when we do explore them. And nobody else is responsible for those decisions. We have too many options, too little time to pursue them, and the weight of every single one is on our shoulders because of the consequences, and that terrifies us; we're all living the same day over and over again, each day slightly different from the last, striving to break free of the monotony; and we may very well be living a Groundhog Day of our own for all of eternity. But all that matters, through it all, is our attitude towards it: even Sisyphus managed to find happiness in his terrible sentence of eternity. Groundhog Day is a Hollywood rom-com, so Phil's "perfect day" involved finding love, but what's your authentic life? What will you be most comfortable with looking back upon after a long life spent? How can you break the cycle of monotony in your life? Make it worth living?

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