From the moment we meet Phil Connors, we can tell he's a jerk. Sure, he has to act charming professionally (because he's a weatherman), but once he's off camera, we see just how much contempt he has for the world around him.
When asked about how excited he is to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, he bluntly answers,
PHIL: They pull the little rat out. They talk to him. The rat talks back to them. They tell us what's going to happen.
His producer Rita thinks that Groundhog Day is just good clean fun for wholesome small-town folk, but it's clear Phil considers them to be hicks. Rita doesn't argue with him, but it's clear from her looks to the cameraman Larry that neither of them like Phil's company all that much.
Unlike Phil, they're just too polite to say so to his face.
It's pretty clear that Phil Connors is only interested in looking out for Phil Connors. He delivers his Groundhog Day TV spot as insincerely as possible and does such a bad job of hiding his contempt that Rita even asks him,
RITA: Want to try it again without the sarcasm?
But no, Phil doesn't want to try it again. He wants to get out of Punxsutawney as soon as possible because all he cares about is pursuing a life of selfish pleasure.
Once he starts reliving Groundhog Day, it doesn't take Phil long to realize what's going on. At first, he gets totally paranoid and thinks that someone is playing a joke on him. He grabs a dude in the hallway of his B&B and tells him,
PHIL: Don't mess with me, Pork Chop. What day is this?
But he eventually realizes he's truly stuck in Groundhog Day, and once he replays the day a few times, he learns that he can use his situation to be even more selfish than he usually is:
PHIL: We could do whatever we want!
Phil really shows us his selfish side when he asks a stranger named Nancy all kinds of personal questions about herself, then uses her answers to trick her into sleeping with him the next time he relives Groundhog Day. When Nancy asks him if this is just a one-night stand, Phil despicably lies to her and says,
PHIL: On the contrary Nancy. I love you.
From the beginning, we can see that Phil's selfishness must run pretty deep, since his first reaction to an insane situation is to use it for his own gain by treating other people as objects.
Eventually, Phil spends such a long time giving himself pleasure that it all becomes blah and he loses the will to live. The truth is that the guy's selfishness has run out of steam and everything has started to bore him. So he decides that the best thing to do is kill himself and put an end to Groundhog Day.
But nope. That doesn't work. He keeps waking up on Groundhog Day even after he tries to kill himself. It's only at this point that he begins to realize that there might be more to life than the simple choice between selfish pleasure and suicide. Go figure.
After he's been stuck reliving Groundhog Day for a good long while, Phil realizes that he wants to be a better person and that he can do this by being more like his producer Rita. So he sets out to learn as much about Rita as he possibly can. And the more he learns, the more attracted her becomes to Rita. Of course, his first instinct is to try and sleep with Rita. The plot even works at first, but when Phil tries to get Rita into bed, we realize that Phil has only changed his behavior and not his heart.
As Rita tells Phil in his B&B room,
RITA: I can't believe I fell for this. This whole day has just been one long setup.
And that's pretty much true. Even after Rita has seen through his ruse, Phil continues to think of new ways to make her like him. He keeps making notes about things she likes and doesn't like, repeating facts to himself like:
PHIL: No white chocolate, no fudge.
This studying suggests that despite Rita's anger, Phil plans on trying all of his schemes again the next day.
Eventually, Rita can only demand to know,
RITA: Is this what love is for you?
And the sad truth is yes, Phil still thinks of love as tricking someone into liking you. Phil still thinks of the people around him as things to be manipulated for his own pleasure. We might want to believe Phil's a good guy, but he's just not there yet. He'll have to change more than the way he acts if he's ever going to convince Rita (or us) that he's become a decent guy.
As the movie enters its final stages, Phil Connors eventually learns how to be a better person and not just act like one. It's not easy to say exactly when this moment happens, but it probably happens around the time Phil has a perfect day with Rita and realizes that it's still not enough to get him out of Groundhog Day. There's only one explanation to this turn of events: Phil realizes that being good means more than being kind to the person you love. It means being kind to everyone.
Thus, Phil learns to escape Groundhog Day when he realizes that everyone in the world is important, not just the woman he's trying to attract (Rita). After he's finished making a passionate speech about Groundhog Day, he even rejects Rita's offer for coffee date to say,
PHIL: I'd love to. Can I have a rain check? I've got some errands to run.
The errands he's talking about are all the nice things he plans on doing for the people of Punxsutawney during the rest of his afternoon. This act of sacrifice shows us that Phil has truly learned to put the happiness of other people before his own.
After a day of helping as many people as possible, Phil finally realizes how to win Rita's heart. It's by being a genuinely kind person and by taking pleasure in his own kindness. The change ultimately pulls him out of Groundhog Day, as Phil wakes up the next morning with Rita beside him. He tells her he loves her and his first instinct is to ask:
PHIL: Is there anything I can do for you today?
Phil has gotten what he wants (an escape from Groundhog Day), but he has changed so much that his first impulse is now to think of others before himself. All in all, Phil has gone from pursuing a life of selfish pleasure to finding fulfillment in helping other people. The movie even implies that anyone would make the same change if only they were given enough time to relive the same day.
And to that, we have only one thing to say: Awwww.
The first time we see Rita in this movie, she's playing around with Phil's computer weather screen. Phil thinks she's dumb, but everyone else seems to think,
PHIL: She's really nice.
Phil doesn't really respect niceness in people because he finds it stupid and naïve. But Rita will never give in to his sarcasm and contempt for normal people. When he criticizes the Groundhog Day festival, Rita simply answers,
RITA: It's nice. People like it.
PHIL: You are new, aren't you?
For Phil, life is about getting ahead no matter how many bridges you have to burn along the way. Rita thinks people should just be… nice.
Don't let Rita's niceness fool you. She is her own person and is totally willing to slap a dude in the face when she feels insulted. When she sits down for dinner with Phil, she lets him know that;
RITA: Believe it or not, I studied 19th Century French poetry.
Phil's first reaction is to think poetry is a total waste of time. But after he realizes this response won't win Rita over, he goes out and learns how to speak French just to impress her.
Rita is no fool though. She eventually sees through Phil's attempts to get her into bed with him. Even after he has learned nearly everything about her, Rita still snaps out of her trance and says,
RITA: This whole day has been one long setup.
She knows that, deep down, Phil is still a selfish person. He's just changed his behavior to make Rita like him. As Rita aptly puts it at one point,
RITA: I could never love someone like you. You only love yourself.
At the end of the day, it'll take more than just a change in Phil's behavior to make Rita love him.
Eventually, Phil and the audience both realize that the only way Rita will ever love Phil is if he becomes a genuinely good person. And guess who he looks to as an example to learn from? That's right, it's Rita herself. As Phil falls asleep next to Rita one night, he thinks to himself,
PHIL: I don't deserve someone like you.
And the reason he doesn't think he deserves her is because he thinks Rita is:
PHIL: […] the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life.
It's only after Phil has spent an entire day acting like Rita that he is able to win her heart and escape the endless cycle of Groundhog Days. Rita is without doubt the moral center of this movie, a person who is kind to others and who always puts their happiness above her own.
But she also has a strong character and has a good sense of what's valuable in life. Our main character Phil has a lot of catching up to do to get to her level, but he gets at least ten years of Groundhog Days to figure it out.
Larry's main job in this movie is to cut tension whenever possible and basically to be Phil Connor's emotional punching bag. When Phil finally dies, Larry looks at the morgue worker and says,
LARRY: He was a really great guy. I really liked him a lot
in what is a super-insincere manner. We don't really get much insight into his character apart from the fact that he likes pastries and likes to hit on women.
The biggest look we get into Larry's mind is when he's at the bar hitting on Nancy. Nancy is clearly not interested but Larry is clueless. He just rambles on about how he's misunderstood as a cameraman because people think he just points his camera at stuff. But as he insists,
LARRY: There is a lot more to it than just that.
There might be a lot more to Larry, too. But we never really find out. All we really get is his unsuccessful flirting, which concludes with him asking Nancy,
LARRY: Would you be at all interested in seeing the inside of the [weather] van?
Nancy declines (goodness—why on earth would she pass up such an amazing opportunity!) and Larry alter runs onstage at the Groundhog Day party to be auctioned off as a bachelor. All he gets is a twenty five-cent bid from an old woman. Poor Larry. Womp womp.
Like any character who isn't Phil or Rita, Nancy isn't that well developed in this movie. She mostly exists so that Phil can prove what a selfish jerk he is when he tricks her into sleeping with him. It's not like they even know each other. Phil simply sees Nancy as a beautiful stranger and walks up to her. He asks her all kinds of personal questions and then uses her answers to gain her trust the next time he relives Groundhog Day.
At one point, Nancy gets suspicious about Phil's motives and asks,
NANCY: Is this some kind of one-night stand?
She's looking for something more meaningful, and Phil tells her exactly what she wants to hear by saying,
PHIL: On the contrary, Nancy. I love you.
Phil only says this because he knows his actions will have no consequences the next day. Nancy is only an object to him, and Phil has a long way to go if he ever plans on becoming a better person.
Nancy shows up later in the movie too, but only to remind Larry the cameraman how much she is not into him. That's because Larry doesn't have the advantage of living the same day thousands of times.
According to this movie, Buster Green has one great purpose in life. And that's to make sure that the Groundhog Day festival goes as smoothly as possible. He practically loses his mind after Phil Connors steals the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. When the cops chase Connors in a truck, Buster says to them,
BUSTER: If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog.
Buster shows up later in the movie too when Phil Connors saves him from choking to death on a piece of steak. Buster is grateful for Phil's help and says,
BUSTER: I owe you one, buddy.
Deep down, Buster is just a good old-fashioned man from a small town in Pennsylvania. His whole life is wrapped up in the town's traditions and festivities and he's totally cool with that.
Ned Ryerson's main purpose in this movie is to test Phil Connors' level of tolerance for annoying people… incredibly annoying people.
At the beginning of the movie, Phil has very little patience for people and he meets his match in Ned, who runs up to him on the street and gives him a passionate speech about how the two of them go way back. He concludes by doing the most annoying thing he could do—sell Phil life insurance:
NED: Do you have life insurance? You could always use a little more. Am I right or am I right or am I right? Right?
PHIL: I would love to stand here and talk to you, but I'm not going to.
By the end of the movie, Phil has decided to treat Ned with kindness even though he still finds the guy annoying. As Ned explains to Rita,
NED: He [Phil] comes to me and buys whole life, term, uniflex, fire, theft, auto, dental, health, with the optional death and dismemberment plan, water damage. This is the best day of my life.
Phil might not think the world of Ned, but he's still willing to make the guy feel good in any way he can. And if Phil can be nice to a dude like Ned, he can be nice to anyone.
Mrs. Lancaster is the owner of the B&B where Phil Connors keeps waking up over and over. She is a well-meaning nice lady who doesn't seem to understand Phil's sarcasm. She also isn't the most educated person: when Phil asks her,
PHIL: Do you ever have déja vu?
MRS LANCASTER: I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen.
Mrs. Lancaster is a nice person, and it's not until Phil learns to be kind to people that he can change his behavior toward her and treat her the way she deserves.