Dallas actor Stephen Tobolowsky is perhaps best known for his role as Ned Ryerson, the earnest childhood friend of Bill Murray’s grumpy newscaster Phil Connors in the comedy classic Groundhog Day. You know, the guy who famously said “Phil? Phil Connors? I thought that was you!” countless times in the movie. Ryerson seems like a friendly enough guy, but the endless repetition of the encounter only exacerbates Murray’s disdain with his old classmate for comedic effect.
Groundhog Day came out in 1993, when the premise of a single day being repeated over and over again in a time loop was a novel concept. Since then, the concept has been borrowed for a variety of projects across different genres, including Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Russian Doll, Happy Death Day and Before I Fall, just to name a few.
These plots address the anxieties we all face about what we would do if we could relive key moments in our lives. What would we say differently? What ripple effect would it cause? Of course, the impact of these new choices is limited to only one day.
This past year saw many of us living a reality similar to that of Groundhog Day. While time wasn’t literally reverting back to the beginning at the end of each day, the strains of staying at home because of COVID-19 and repeating the same activities in quarantine sure made it feel like it. As each day of lockdown bleeds into another, it’s hard not to retain some of Phil Connors’ signature grumpiness.
As a result, it’s not surprising that the Groundhog Day premise has become its own subgenre, and recent projects released since the beginning of quarantine days have taken the concept in wildly different directions.
Early March saw the release of the breathtakingly violent action comedy Boss Level. The film stars Frank Grillo as Roy Pulver, a retired special forces commando caught in a time loop after his wife is murdered. Each day sees Pulver slowly honing his martial arts skills as he investigates a plot by rogue colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson) to cause a rift in the timeline.
Boss Level brings a pulpy sense of nihilism and dark comedy to the mainstream. Pulver fights off his assassins with increasingly ridiculous means, using a variety of objects to stage creative kills. There’s a mean-spirited sense of humor generated from seeing Pulver perish at the end of each day, and frequent xenophobic snarks come from the mouth of Gibson (and, well, his character, too).
Boss Level may be looking for a much different audience than Groundhog Day, but the message is actually pretty similar: When you’re caught doing the same thing forever, you’re going to learn a lot about the person you’ve become. Both Connors and Pulver take this opportunity to better themselves and recenter their priorities, as Boss Level takes a sentimental turn when Pulver chooses to get to know the son he never knew.
The Groundhog Day comparison was also made to a widely different movie: last summer’s Palm Springs. The romantic comedy imagines the most humiliating day in the life of Sarah Wilder (Cristin Milloti), in which she’s caught in a compromising scenario on the morning of her sister’s wedding. After prolonged exposure to the time loop, Sarah discovers the carefree Nyles (Andy Samberg), a fellow victim of the neverending day.
Seeing two people trapped together is an interesting wrinkle within the formula, and Palm Springs manages to subvert the notion of isolation. Sarah and Nyles experiment with their new environment but eventually begin to bicker and grow apart before they come together as a couple. It’s an interesting way to track the progress of a relationship, and Palm Springs ultimately values understanding and compassion as tools of progress for couples growing a little too close to each other’s company. It’s a truism uniquely suited for the reality of a post-COVID world.
This relatable storyline has been translated and repurposed for an increasingly diverse target audience. The Groundhog Day premise inspired the Valentine’s Day-released teen rom-com The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, but it’s also found in more serious fare, including the recent independent film The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, which follows a gay African American teenager forced to relive his own death at the hands of a police officer.
Boss Level, Palm Springs, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and The Obituary of Tunde Johnson were all shot and conceived well before COVID-19 rocked the filmmaking world. As audiences struggle with the perpetual déjà vu of being caught in an unprecedented global pandemic, it’s easier than ever to relate to characters searching for meaning in the staleness of their reality.
While these films are united in their plot details, they’re also bound by a similar sentiment: hope. Each of the core characters has learned to accept what they can, and work toward problem-solving when it’s possible. The positive outlook on being trapped in mundanity should offer some solace when many people dread the notion of the next day.
Roger Ebert once said that “movies that encourage empathy are more effective than those that objectify problems,” and the fact that these films saw such a spike in viewer interest across the past twelve months signifies that cinema still has the power to heal.