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City Lights: The spiritual side of 'Groundhog Day'

January 31, 2013|By Michael Miller

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.'" Dictionary.com 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.

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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.

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