“Groundhog Day” Revisited: Therapy and Self-Help

What would you do if there were truly no tomorrow, if you knew everything that was going to happen on a given day and nothing you did ever had even a hint of consequences? Kenneth Turan, on a key question posed by Groundhog Day (Los Angeles Times)

Groundhog Day (1993), starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a narcissistic TV weatherman who’s somehow been doomed to relive one February 2nd indefinitely, “has gradually achieved the status of beloved. The American Film Institute rates it No.34 on its list of all-time funniest movies…” (Michael Booth, Denver Post, 2007).

Watch the trailer below:

So, what does Phil actually do upon realizing his terrible plight? Janet Maslin, New York Times, lists some of his ensuing actions: “Phil eagerly explores every self-destructive possibility now open to him, from jumping off buildings to smoking cigarettes to overeating and refusing to floss; at one point he even casually robs an armored truck, just to see if he can. ‘Well, what if there is no tomorrow?’ he anxiously asks someone. ‘There wasn’t one today!'”

Phil also, though, consults a therapist—one who’s, of course, ill prepared to handle the unusual problem. In fact, much to Phil’s chagrin, at the end of the session the shrink can only offer words that are so not pretty: “I think we should meet tomorrow.”  (See a brief clip below.)

Phil does eventually get a better handle on the repetitive story of his life. But what’s the lesson of Groundhog Day?

A few years ago Ryan Gilbey (The Guardian) got the following quote from David O. Russell, director of Silver Linings Playbook (among other movies), who claims Groundhog Day as one of his all-time faves: “Very much like Silver Linings Playbook, it’s about someone fighting their demons using all that humble, difficult, baby-steps hard work that it takes, but doing it in such a hilarious way. It shows that until you wake up and get things right, you’re gonna live that stuff until you die: the same emotional prison every day. Phil has to go through every incarnation of what he thinks love is until he really gets it.”

Jennifer M. Wood, Mental Floss, goes beyond this, naming eight different “creative interpretations” of the film. The six I won’t be highlighting:

  • Bill Murray as Savior
  • Punxsutawney Phil as the resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • Punxsutawney as Purgatory
  • a metaphor for Judaism
  • a comparison for military boredom
  • economic theory

The two in which I have more interest: a metaphor for psychoanalysis (or therapy of any kind, I might add) and a means of self-help.

Many psychoanalysts apparently told the film’s director and co-writer, Harold Ramis (1944-2014), of their endorsement. Ramis: “Obviously the movie’s a metaphor for psychoanalysis, because we revisit the same stories and keep reliving these same patterns in our life. And the whole goal of psychoanalysis is to break those patterns of behavior.”

More from Wood on this topic:

In 2006, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis printed an essay entitled, ‘Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic Depiction of Mutative Process,’ which explained that the film ‘shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience—in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object—symbolizes the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.’

And motivational speaker Paul Hannam, who wrote The Magic of Groundhog Day (2008), uses the movie as a means of self-help. His book aims to teach readers to “learn how to unlock the magic of the movie to transform your life at home and at work” and to “break free from repetitive thoughts and behaviors that keep you stuck in a rut.”

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