PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. - After years of appeals to public government and no tangible results to show for it, residents of Punxsutawney have filed a class action lawsuit against actor Bill Murray for his involvement in the film "Groundhog Day" and the resulting "economic and cultural devastation" the town has experienced since its release.
The class action suit is the first in national history to be filed by an entire town against a single celebrity. The legalese of the complaint is unexpectedly evasive, but it seems the claim boils down to an accusation of criminal negligence.
Murray's 1993 film, in which he plays a Pittsburgh reporter forced to repeatedly relive the holiday of the film's namesake, sparked unprecedented national interest in the small Western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney.
Attendance at the annual Groundhog Day celebration for which the town is known began to increase dramatically following 1993, rising to 35,000, or roughly five times the town's population, in 1997.
Tallies for attendance at this year's festivities range well into the hundred thousands.
This number may seem like an economic godsend to a town that saw little to nothing in the way of tourism before 1993, but Punxsutawney residents disagree. They say the extreme brevity of the annual influx, in addition to a corrupt and greedy local government working counter to local interest, has caused major problems for the town, particularly its lower-income echelon.
"Three new hotels in the last two years, and they're not even in use most of the year, completely empty," says outraged and lifelong Punxsutawney resident, Timothy Randal. "The town council has spent millions building and staffing these monstrosities, and not a single Punxsutawnian gets any use out of them. Meanwhile just look at the food we serve in our public schools. [It's] disgusting."
Randal, a father of two children both attending local public schools, says the money spent on the new hotels is being siphoned out of the town's already tight education budget.
In an interview following a protest he helped organize outside of Punxsutawney Town Hall, he had plenty to say about the town council's recent choices in allocating local funding.
"You ever seen a shrimp popper?" Randal asked, unable to hide his vitriol. "Awful little breaded fish paste nuggets, the kind of thing you wouldn't feed your dog. And that's what they give my kids in school, because the budget our schools work from is too skimpy to get anything better. But we can still spend taxpayer money to fund these eye sores? I don't think so."
Though the last of the three hotels finished construction earlier this year, rumors of a new development project have renewed local outrage.
This time the town council is said to be in contact with Brazilian construction firm Oderbrecht, the same company that built many of the soccer stadiums for the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, as well as the stadiums for this year's upcoming Olympic games.
Word has it the small town government is planning to build a stadium surrounding Gobbler's Knob, the area where the yearly celebration takes place and local celebrity Punxsutawney Phil emerges each February to look for his shadow. The new stadium would presumably facilitate more of the onlookers during the holiday's activities.
When asked about the new rumors and the potential of a giant stadium in his once-modest hometown, Randal replied, steadily and solemnly as a eulogizer: "Over my dead body."
The completed multimillion-dollar development projects have already drawn harsh criticism, not only from townspeople, but from international watchdog Human Rights Watch as well.
The organization recently published a report detailing a number of workers' rights violations against a steady stream of rotating migrant workers. Citations include non-payment of wages, excessive working hours, and withholding of personal identification.
"People work, they don't get paid, and leave," the report quotes an unnamed worker regarding the construction process. "Then a bus comes and unloads a fresh group of workers to complete the cycle."
The report also includes disturbing anecdotes of overworked bellhops and housekeepers from tourists staying at the temporarily-staffed hotels. One man even claimed to see hotel workers "sleeping fitfully in hallways [and] elevators" in between their day-long shifts.
Other recent allegations include the use of excessive force by the Punxsutawney Police Department, as protests have run rampant the last two years.
"It's deplorable," says local activist Margaret Sheehan. "They fight our marches and chants with tear gas and batons. These are peaceful demonstrations. To respond with violence is sickeningly un-American."
Despite the widespread protests, Sheehan says the corrupt town council refuses to listen.
"These projects and the disgrace of a celebration they now represent have stolen money from healthcare, education, and the poor," says Sheehan. "This holiday is not for Punxsutawney anymore, it's for the tourists."
Amid these and other grievances, locals say they've been left with only one choice of recourse: litigation.
Tom Wilson is the legal representative of the townspeople in the case. When asked why the suit specifically targets Bill Murray, the star actor of the film, and not anyone else involved in its production or release, Wilson said that the film's success and the resulting pandemonium in Punxsutawney ultimately hinged on Murray's involvement.
"When it comes right down to it, if you cast anyone else as [main character] Phil Connors, the film doesn't do half as well commercially," said Wilson, "and if the movie tanks, the good people of Punxsutawney still have the town they know and love instead of the schizoid mess they have now."
According to Wilson, Punxsutawney has become two places: the small, hard-working American town that residents like Timothy Randal grew up in, and the Hollywood-bred small town fantasy, a fantasy that began with Bill Murray 23 years ago, that tourists flock by the hundred-thousand to see for a few days a year.
"When a small town becomes overrun by greed, by corruption, by outsiders forcing the locals into economic acquiescence, then the America our forefathers fought and died for is gone," says Wilson. "We fight now not just for Punxsutawney, but for the America we once had."
In what would appear an attempt to set a historic precedent with the case, Wilson has also cited a number of instances in which a small town is made the setting of a Hollywood film only to become overwhelmed by the unforeseen consequences of the movie's success.
The most notable example might be Aspen, Colo., the setting of 1994's "Dumb and Dumber." A small ski resort town nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Aspen has in the last 20 years become overrun by non-skiing tourists whose littering, drug use and excessive quotation of the Jim Carey film have rent the town scenically and culturally asunder.
Ironically enough, "Groundhog Day" and "Dumb and Dumber" were not shot in either Punxsutawney or Aspen respectively. The large majority of the former was filmed in Woodstock, Ill., and the Aspen scenes of the latter were filmed in Breckenridge, Colo.
In fact, that's one of the main things Wilson finds so negligent about Murray's film.
"When you put out a Hollywood film about a small town, you're putting that town on display. You're telling the rest of the country and the rest of the world, 'Hey, check out this quaint little spot here, doesn't this look like a nice place to be, a nice place to come and visit?'
"But to put a town on display under false pretences, to show a town in Illinois and call it Punxsutawney, not only are you misleading your audience, you're creating a false version of the town that real people call home," says Wilson. "Mr. Murray helped create a fake town, and in doing so he erased the town that these nice people once knew."
According to Wilson, he would never restrict the freedom of a Hollywood screenwriter in choosing the setting of their script, nor would he restrict the freedom of an actor to choose the films in which they act.
"All we ask for is accountability," he says. "If you're going to make a movie that causes so much financial and social havoc, you need to be held accountable. Mr. Murray needs to step up and be an ethical example for the film industry at large."
The author has reached out to Murray and his representatives, but they have declined to comment at this time.