Often when we talk about stories, we question whether the stakes are high enough, or too high, or whether they’re even extant. In Groundhog Day, the classic 1993 comedy about a self-centered weatherman (Bill Murray) stuck in a time loop, tangible stakes quickly fly out of the window, with emotional and, more importantly, philosophical consequences being the only real stakes at play.
Pretty early on in the film, Murray’s character, the obnoxiously narcissistic Phil, realizes that there are no consequences for his actions. He can steal, seduce, wreak havoc and even kill himself, and nothing about his circumstances will change. No matter what, he will still wake up with Sonny and Cher on the radio in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney.
His situation feels like the perfect recipe for nihilism, the philosophical idea promoted by Friedrich Nietzsche and others that life is pointless and the values that we hold dear have no root in actual fact. And who could blame him for being a nihilist when he’s faced with a blank slate every day? Phil follows this philosophy to its logical conclusions—hedonism and suicide—multiple times. No matter what, he’s still under that homey quilt in the morning. Nihilism is not the answer.
From there, Phil works on his own personal growth and starts to help the townspeople he once rebuffed, partly because he’s grown, but also because his development as a person endears him to his producer/love interest Rita (Andie McDowell, with glorious hair). At this stage, he seems to be subscribing to enlightened self-interest, the idea that in helping others, you in turn help yourself (basically the golden rule revisited).
It works for him most of the time, but he still has to start from scratch every day in terms of winning over Rita. Phil is painfully aware of how far he’s come as a person towards the end of the movie, confessing to Rita that the worst part of his predicament is waking up every morning with her still thinking he’s a jerk. So even though Phil’s change of heart serves him to some extent, he’s hardly a man of enlightened self-interest, considering the effort he has to go through to prove himself to Rita day in and day out.
Phil’s actions do follow a philosophy, though: absurdism, particularly that championed by the French philosopher Albert Camus. Absurdism doesn’t fall that far from nihilism, preoccupying itself with the inherent dissonance between our desire for meaning and the senselessness of the universe. Camus’ seminal work The Myth of Sisyphus invokes the Greek myth which isn’t all that different from Phil’s circumstances: Sisyphus is tasked for eternity with pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down to the bottom again, then he pushes it back up, and on and on.
Ultimately, though, Camus says that we can find happiness in the face of the absurd, as long as we both accept the absurdity of life and keep trying to create our own meaning. As he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable.”
Phil follows this doctrine by embracing the cycle in which he’s trapped. He learns new skills like ice sculpting, saves a kid falling out of a tree, and preoccupies himself with general do-goodery. Phil also creates meaning by finding solace in his connection with Rita, despite him having to rekindle it every day. Only in embracing the absurd is Phil set free.
Our circumstances can feel so dire sometimes, between the greed of the upper classes, ignorance on climate change and any other number of issues that feel obvious in their solution, save for the inertia of world leaders. However, maybe by accepting the absurd we can find some of the peace that Phil has as he walks through the snow hand in hand with Rita.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.