How To Understand The Philosophy Of 'Groundhog Day' And Live Life By Its Message

Feb 2, 2018
Originally published on February 2, 2018 8:33 pm
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Stop me if you've heard this one before.


BILL MURRAY: (As Phil) It's February 2, Groundhog Day.

SHAPIRO: Today is not just the day that Punxsutawney Phil looks for his shadow. This year is also the 25th anniversary of the movie "Groundhog Day."


MURRAY: (As Phil) A thousand people freezing their butts off, waiting to worship a rat.

SHAPIRO: The Bill Murray comedy about a weatherman who lives the same day over and over has had staying power. Philosophy classes include "Groundhog Day" in their syllabus. There was even a Broadway adaptation - "Groundhog Day: The Musical."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) If I had my time again, I'd open all the doors I never looked behind before and...

SHAPIRO: Mary Elizabeth Williams has written about why this movie struck a chord, and she has a new article about it in Salon. Welcome.

MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Rough plot outline - in this movie, Bill Murray's character starts out as kind of an awful person. And as he lives the same day over and over and over again, he eventually becomes a more selfless person. What's the secret sauce here?

WILLIAMS: I think it has such amazing durability for a couple of reasons. It's very clear that it does somehow tap into so many of the themes of philosophy, of faith, of religion that I think can be so neatly applied to so many different kinds of belief systems. But I've also found that you can watch it at different times in your life and see different things in it.

SHAPIRO: When you first watched it you were, like, in your 20s.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. And now, 25 years later - it's half a lifetime later, and it feels like such a different story to me now because it really is about this character who's closer in age to now where I am who has made a lot of mistakes and is learning and keeps learning.

SHAPIRO: And is the lesson that you take away when you watch it now that, well, if you could live every day over again you'd be able to perfect it, but since you can't you're kind of stuck? Or is the lesson that we all have an opportunity - I mean, like, what do you get out of it?

WILLIAMS: I feel it's so resonant right now because I look around me and everything I see or read seems to be about maximizing your time and maximizing your efficiency.


WILLIAMS: And this is really a story about the incredible, painstaking, patience-testing process of learning and failing. And it's certainly not about building skill sets in terms of doing card tricks or learning how to play the piano...

SHAPIRO: Which are things that he does over the course of the movie.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. But what ultimately gets him to that next level of transcendence or however you want to apply your belief system to it is by kindness, is by community, is by becoming a part of something and starting to work not for benefiting himself, but benefiting other people.

SHAPIRO: We actually have a clip of the director, Harold Ramis, who was famous for "Ghostbusters" and "Caddyshack" and other legendary comedies that were maybe a little less profound. And this was almost a decade ago. Before he died, he told the Hudson Union Society that almost as soon as the movie came out he started to hear from Catholic priests and Jewish scholars and psychoanalysts. And they all said this movie was clearly a metaphor for the teachings that their group subscribes to.


HAROLD RAMIS: My mother-in-law lived for 35 years in a Zen Buddhist meditation center. I called her right away on the weekend, and she said they saw it, they - the abbots and the senior monks. She said they loved it. They thought it expresses a fundamental Buddhist concept.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it's pretty remarkable - right? - that all these different groups each saw their own teachings in this kind of screwball comedy.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's pretty great because it implies that there is something beyond the teachings of any one particular faith or philosophy, that this is a deeply humane film, that this is really a story of humanity and the story of the big questions we ask about what we're doing with our time. It's perfect because what is "Groundhog Day"? It's this, you know, completely kind of random, silly, superstitious thing that's about, how much more time are we going to have to wait until we get to something better?

SHAPIRO: You had an experience in your own life that I imagine was pretty profound. You survived stage 4 cancer. And when we think about how much time we have left on this earth, I would imagine that a fatal illness kind of gives you a different perspective on that.

WILLIAMS: It does. It's both profound and there's something really reassuring about knowing that on some level you're going to be the same goofy time waster you ever were. I had metastatic cancer and I still spend way too much time looking at Instagram. It's not like I go out and plant trees every day. But it definitely changed my relationship with time. Whether you have a little bit of time or a lot of time, kind of the only thing that really matters is how much you can give to other people. That's what I learned in having a little bit of time, and that's what I think Phil learns in having a lot of time.

SHAPIRO: Mary Elizabeth Williams speaking with us about the 25th anniversary of the movie "Groundhog Day." It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much. Happy Groundhog Day and every day after.


SHAPIRO: Stop me if you've heard this one before.


MURRAY: (As Phil) It's February 2, Groundhog Day.

SHAPIRO: Just kidding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANFRED MANN'S "I GOT YOU BABE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.