City Lights: The spiritual side of 'Groundhog Day'

A major spiritual milestone is coming up this month. We can call it the year 20 A.P.

That A.P. stands for "After Phil" — or Phil Connors, the protagonist of the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day." How many other movies starring "Saturday Night Live" alums go on to factor into religious teachings? Probably none. But that Murray classic, which came out 20 Groundhog Days ago, seems to have carved out a niche all its own.

Do I need to summarize the movie's plot? Even those who haven't seen it must have heard it referenced — for instance, when a friend snipes about the redundancy of his job and adds that it's "like 'Groundhog Day.'" defines the term two ways: one as the actual holiday, the other as "a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated." Forget the Oscar or Golden Globe; when your movie actually alters the dictionary, that's a sign that it's struck a chord.

Apparently, it's struck a chord in the pulpit as well. When Roger Ebert included the film in his Great Movies series, he cited a British newspaper article claiming that it is "hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time." I haven't been able to track down that article, but as the movie's 20th anniversary approaches — it opened in theaters Feb. 12, 1993 — I contacted our local spiritual leaders and religion professors to see if it ever factored into their programs.

OK, the plot in brief: Murray plays a weatherman named Phil Connors, who ventures not-too-enthusiastically to snowbound Punxsutawney, Pa. to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival. He intends to cover the story with minimal effort and then head home Feb. 3 — except that Feb. 3 never arrives. The next morning, Phil wakes to find that the clock has shifted back to Feb. 2, and so it happens again, day after day, evidently for years.

Caught in this time warp, with the knowledge that the day will always revert back 24 hours and wipe out whatever he's done, Phil goes through stages: hedonism, as he indulges himself in food and sex without consequence; despair, as he tries to end his life and realizes that he can't; and finally, improvement, as he gets to know each resident of Punxsutawney, hones his artistic skills, and romances a coworker he previously treated with disdain.

It's a comedy, of course, and a funny one; you can laugh at it without ever pondering its deeper implications. But those implications are so intriguing. Does Phil's journey stand for reincarnation? After all, he shapes his personality by playing the same scenes again and again. Is it purgatory? Maybe — he must atone for his misdeeds before he can pass on to Feb. 3.

Or is it just a story of spiritual cleansing in general? That's how it works for the Rev. Carol Aguilar, a minister at Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa. She said her mentor, Zen master Charlotte Joko Beck, constantly cited the film as a parable of bettering the soul through experience, and Aguilar is considering screening it at the center's next monthly movie night.

"That's not one of my beliefs, that we're reborn after we die," she said. "But we just keep on having to live the same mistakes until we find a solution in this lifetime. That's how I look at it."

Aguilar can't remember actually bringing the film up during services, but Rabbi Marc Rubenstein can — in fact, the leader of Temple Isaiah in Newport Beach once used it as the topic for an entire service. For Rubenstein, who believes that God doesn't allow do-overs, the lead character's journey serves as a wishful-thinking fantasy.

"In the movie, my interpretation is that he got it the way he wanted it to be because he couldn't do anything wrong," Rubenstein said. "We all wish we could have a Groundhog Day, where we can repeat it. I think that's where it resonates with me." (He noted that "The Family Man," a 2000 drama in which Nicolas Cage plays a wealthy businessman who helplessly envisions how life would have turned out if he had married his beloved, offers a more realistic parable.)

It turns out the film doesn't just jibe with faith centers; it's also a bonanza for academics. C. Scott Sevier, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Orange Coast College, told me he screens it in his ethics class to illustrate concepts of the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine and even Nietzsche.

"One nice thing about the film, from a philosophical perspective, is that the character gets to try out many different approaches to life, notably beginning with hedonism, and eventually ending in virtue and care for others," Sevier said in an email. "The film thus, in a way, answers the ages-old philosophical question, 'What is the best sort of life to live?' And the answer it gives seems to be that the virtuous life, especially one characterized by love/care for others, is the best life."

As for me? I first saw the film as a teenager, and my early-adolescent mind could only wrap around it so much. Even now, I don't adhere to any particular faith. Still, every time I revisit the Book of Phil, I muse about the possibilities of a single day. How many things do we overlook in the course of 24 hours? What possibilities do we leave untapped?

The answer, especially on a journalist's deadlines, is infinite. I try to coax as much from each day as possible, and I'll do the same this Saturday. But when I wake up Sunday and find that Feb. 3 is here so soon, I may catch myself feeling a little wistful.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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