Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Every year on the same day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania a groundhog emerges from his hidey-hole and with prophetic predilection uses the length of its shadow to foretell the weather. Folklore figures that if Mr ‘Hog finds a dark shade emanating from his furry body as he transpires from his burrow, winter will dig in for another six weeks but if it’s cloudy (and minus ‘shade’) – well, hello spring.

Any excuse for a party, right? Sure. Unless your name is Phil Connors and you’re forced by the God of Fix Your Attitude to experience the joy of Groundhog Day on a time loop; living 2 February 1993 over and over, in which case not even a soothsaying woodchuck-thing can be fabulous. But they made a movie about it anyway; a modern day Fable that is sure to have sent Aesop leaping from the grave in as ecstatic a gesticulation as an ancient Greek zombie can muster. And now, in a magnificent manifestation of déjà vu delight, Groundhog Day is to resurface as a musical 20-plus years after the fact, with music and lyrics by cool-cat Tim Minchin, whose award-winning adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda has been running in the West End since 2011 and on Broadway since 2013.

Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin’s cautionary tale is set to premier at London’s Old Vic theatre in June 2016 before hitting Broadway in March 2017. Exciting times – if only Bill Murray could do Phil Connors again… and again (his awesomeness is unrivalled) but fortunately for the theatre-going public, the impartation of the film’s existentialist reverie is not entirely reliant on Murray-majesty; catchy tunes will do the job just fine. Groundhog Day is, after all, a story about repetition and the intrinsic nature of a musical, choral litany and all, lends itself to the temperament of the tale.

Phil Connors, pontificating on the personal hell that so happens to be Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania times infinity, says:

“It’s the same thing your whole life: ‘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 track’.”

Phil Connors is a comment on how damn stubborn humans can be; we live in secluded universes, concocted by our insecurities – but we can be fixed

It’s a reference to life’s hum-drum, and tepid temper; Phil Connors and his surly demeanour is a poignant reminder. But Phil is called to task, like King Sisyphus of Ephyra (modern day Corinth), who, in Greek mythology, was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating this action forever. Except, Phil is punished for his conceitedness. And he also has a way out. It does, however take an estimated 12,395 days (or 33 years and 350 days), according to Whatculture.com, to figure his shit out. Phil learns to play the piano, ice sculpt and learn French poetry before his disposition is entirely transformed. The metaphor is unavoidable. Phil Connors is a comment on how damn stubborn human beings can be; how we live in seven billion (or whatever) secluded universes, concocted by our insecurities and enveloped by our egos. We are a self-centred lot but we can be fixed, with help. Groundhog Day is an ode to self-improvement, and a reminder of how little time we have to do it.

The film comes packaged in the guise of a romantic comedy, which is not accidental seeing as it is love that cajoles Phil into a more lateral mode of thought. Rita Hanson (played by Andie McDowell) turns out not only to be Phil’s love interest but his muse; the character to which he aspires. She is good and kind and friendly but beside all of the usual ‘nice person’ stuff, Rita has a carpe diem take on life, which makes her an invaluable member of, and contributor to, the world at large. It is Rita who helps Phil realise that he has a choice, unlike the unfortunate King Sisyphus; that although his day is the same he can choose how to live it.

Phil Connor’s moment of illumination proceeds an emotional breakdown that starts with shock and then moves on to anger and hedonism (booze, babes, the whole shebang) then despair, topped off with a suicidal depression oozing black comic genius, whereby poor Phil tries to off himself: with a toaster in the bathtub, by stepping in front of a truck and when that doesn’t work he takes a dive from a clock tower, and finally by driving himself (and Punxsutawney Phil – yes, our protagonist fortuitously shares a name with the Groundhog) off a cliff, into a quarry and a sweet fire-ball of death. After which Phil arrives at the only logical conclusion, “I am a God. I am immortal.”

Once that bubble has been burst (immortal – yes; God – not really), Phil succumbs to his fate by embracing it. Rather than roll out of bed each morning in an automatic daze that sets into motion a chain of familiar events, Phil takes the bull by the horns and starts to engage with his context.

And what would Hollywood be without a happy ending? Phil Connors, previously grumpy weatherman, is rewarded for his existential epiphany with the joy of tomorrow. He also gets the girl. Yet as we guffaw the film for its unyielding optimism and sentimental romanticism, Groundhog Day’s prevailing sense of hope comes as a great relief. If mankind didn’t believe in redemption we’d be screwed because, if truth be told, who doesn’t need an attitude adjustment?

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