It’s Groundhog Day…again…and that must mean we’re out here on Gobbler’s Knob. Oh wait, no I’m in my office. And it’s February 3rd. And I’ve never had the unique pleasure of visiting Gobbler’s Knob; something I hope to rectify in the coming years. But! I have made a habit out of watching the Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell comedy each year, as I’m sure many people across the world do. However this year was a bit different, as I watched it through the lens of a storyteller, and in much the same way I deconstructed Christmas with the Kranks, I couldn’t help finding myself looking a bit deeper into this already dense film.
You may ask yourself: why does a writer spend his time reviewing and deconstructing movies? For me, they are a more familiar form of media, and easier for me to wrap my head around as they tend to be much, much shorter than books. But I find the lessons learned can be applied across mediums. Perhaps one day I’ll get around to deconstructing books. But until then, films it is.
Groundhog Day has been called one of the most spiritual non-spiritual movies ever committed to celluloid. Released in 1993, this movie has fascinated me ever since I saw it in theaters. When I was young it was because I had a thing (and still do) for time travel or time-related stories. And while this doesn’t fall under a traditional time travel story, it definitely explores the weight of time, and how that pressure affects us when we are confronted with it.
A quick recap for those who may not have seen it: Phil Connors is a cynical, arrogant Pittsburg weather man assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festival year after year. He has higher ambitions, and he thinks stepping on people is the fastest way to get to the top. Unfortunately, during his most recent outing to the small town of Punxsutawney, he is summarily trapped by a blizzard and cannot leave after the festivities are over. When he wakes up the next morning, it turns out he’s reliving the same day–Groundhog Day–over again. As it becomes clear to Phil and the audience there is no escape from this time loop, Punxsutawney or even the groundhog himself (also named Phil), Phil must navigate his new existence in the best way he can.
I could go into how perfect this movie is cast, or what a great comedy it is, or any other number of subjects; but I want to keep my analysis firmly on the story and themes of this movie, so that is where I will concentrate.
I watched this movie twice last night. Once just as the movie, and the second time with the director’s commentary by Harold Ramis. Both viewings turned out to be eye-opening as I saw the movie in such a different light. They say that film is forever we are the ones that change around them. In this case this is absolutely true. So lets work through the story beats here and see if this movie really measures up structurally.
The story begins in Pittsburg, with Phil and crew headed out to Punxsutawney. This is our inciting incident: leaving the city to cover the festival. Upon arriving, they film their story and try to leave, only to be stuck in the town due to a freak blizzard. When Phil wakes up the next day, he realizes he’s living the same day again. You would think this marks the Point of No Return (the point at when the protagonist has firmly entered the story and cannot go back to his old life), but I disagree. I think the PoNR comes on the third loop through, because in the second day you can almost see Phil doesn’t really believe it himself. He thinks it is some sort of practical joke. But when the third day hits and it is STILL Groundhog Day, Phil loses it. As Harold Ramis says, everything turns into shorthand. We don’t need to see the interactions with all the people he’s met because we’ve seen it all twice before, and so has Phil. THIS is the Point of No Return, the realization that his life will never be the same again.
Once confronted with this realization, Phil begins questioning what he should do. Initially depressed, a conversation with some barflies leads to the conclusion that his life is now consequence free. And to a point, that is true. All physical acts are consequence free. But as we will soon see, his mental state is not so lucky. Phil engages in acts of public destruction of property and when he wakes up the following morning, he’s right back in bed again instead of a jail cell. If there was ever any remaining doubt about his situation, this final act has solidified his new reality. He can get away with anything he wants. And for a person like Phil Connors, arrogant, greedy, rude and superior, it feeds into the worst aspects of himself. If we are to look at this story as a mirror for the human condition, we find that this is Phil entering his adolescent phase. He’s a reckless teenager, thinking himself invincible and unable to be harmed in any way. He steals, lies, and manipulates everyone to get what he wants. But it isn’t enough.
As we move into Act 2 of the movie Phil has become bored with “the easy stuff”. He wants the big prize: Rita, his producer. Whom he only just met before they left Pittsburg to cover the festival. In an attempt to woo her, Phil uses a trial-and-error process to learn what she likes and doesn’t like (sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist), hoping he can put on enough of a show to get her to fall for him. But Rita is too clever, and sees through his attempts every time. I feel like this is particularly clever, because even though these attempts have worked with other women, they won’t work with her because she sees he is only fooling himself. He thinks he loves her, and he may in some way, but he is still the same person underneath, and without real change, he will never get what he wants.
After numerous attempts (and I use the term numerous loosely here because even though it is never stated in the film, I tend to think he spends close to a year working on impressing Rita) Phil falls into a depression. The monotony is getting to him and he’s losing any hope of showing Rita how he truly feels. This is evident in the scene where he’s watching Jeopardy, chugging Jack Daniels. He’s building himself up for suicide, and we can see he is lost inside. Nothing matters anymore, despite everyone being very impressed with all his knowledge. It is nothing more than a parlor trick. He reaches full blown nihilism.
In our human lifespan comparison, I liken this stage to a mid-life crisis. Stuck in the same mundane, repetitive, unfulfilling tasks day after day. This is where I really think the message of this movie resonates with people the most. Everyone can relate to that feeling, and the hopelessness that comes along with it.
Finally, Phil has lost so much of himself nothing matters anymore. He’s willing to do anything to break this curse of an existence, no matter what. Death is better than this endless day. Oddly, on his first attempt, he takes Phil the groundhog with him, as if he believes that killing them both will break the cycle. But of course it doesn’t work. He wakes up right back in his bed. And after each suicide, his attempts only grow more desperate. What I find interesting about this section of the movie is that other than groundhog Phil, human Phil doesn’t endanger the lives of anyone else when he’s trying to kill himself. Just like he never killed or raped or hurt anyone while he was indulging in his fantasies. He isn’t a bad person at his core, and I think his hopelessness in these scenes humanize him.
Once Phil realizes he cannot die, at least in the traditional sense, we find ourselves at the halfway point of the movie. Also known as Re-Dedication. Phil literally has no other choice but to look at life differently, or else be resigned to an eternity of killing himself, but that has already gotten old. It is at this point where we start to see some real change in Phil. It is subtle at first. He seeks solace with Rita again, however this time, instead of attempting to trick her, he is honest with her, and befriends her. And by finally getting to know her better, he realizes she responds to kindness, generosity, and the truth. But where we really see the change in Phil is the following morning, after he wakes up alone yet again. This is the true point of Re-Dedication. We can see it in his body language. He is determined to be a better person.
It is at this point I will mention that I have discovered in the original script Phil was supposed to endure the loop for ten thousand years. Ten. Thousand. Years. This isn’t just an arbitrary number; its origins are rooted in Buddhism. I’m not an expert, but the idea is that it takes ten thousand years of practice for a soul to evolve to its next level. Now I always thought this was insane. Someone wouldn’t be able to come back from that, they wouldn’t be able to function in any day other than that day anymore. I believe Harold Ramis said they pulled back on that to make it more like thirty or forty years, which I find much more reasonable. And yet still, a very, very long time. I haven’t even been alive for forty years, I have a hard time imagining repeating the same day for that long. But that’s the point. This movie is supposed to make you feel the weight of time bearing down on you, as it does Phil. And I believe it succeeds. In less than two hours, we experience a lifetime.
Phil dedicates himself to self-improvement as we move closer to the third act of the movie. He learns to play piano (something that would take ten years by itself), how to ice sculpt, and how to speak french. He is dedicating himself to becoming a better person, and armed with nothing but time he is in the perfect position to do so. He finally stops seeing the loop as a trap, but as an opportunity to grow. Things are going better. Phil is becoming the person we want him to be. But time isn’t done with him yet.
In an attempt to better himself (and others), he sees a homeless man on the streets at night and takes him to the hospital. Unfortunately the old man dies that evening, setting us up for our final thematic beat before the climax: Darkest Night. Each day Phil tries again and again to save the old man, and each day he fails. No matter what he does, no matter what steps he takes, the old man dies at exactly the same time each day. And this is Phil’s final lesson: that he is not, in fact, a god as he purported to Rita earlier in the movie. He is mortal like the rest of us, and there are limits to what he can and can’t do. And he gets it. He’s finally in the right mindset to understand. In some ways I think this is the most important scene in the movie, because it keeps him humble. It keeps him human. We see he is not supernatural in any way.
The very next scene we see Phil quoting Chekhov in his address to his viewers. It is a long way from the sarcastic prima donna from the beginning of the film. Rita is so touched by his speech she asks if he would like to go for coffee and he politely declines. An earlier version of Phil would have taken her up immediately, but he knows it isn’t about her anymore. It is about helping as many people as he can, and the man has a busy schedule. And this is part of the brilliance of their attraction: rather than chase after her and pretend to be something he is not, he has turned himself into someone she wants to pursue, by his actions and his behaviors. By letting go of his pursuit, he has unwittingly become much more attractive.
Phil saves a kid from breaking his leg, fixes a spare tire for a group of old ladies, saves the Groundhog president from choking on a piece of steak and in a deleted scene, saves a little girl and her dog from being hit by a car. We can also assume he is doing many other good deeds throughout the day. He has fully become “Good Phil”. I tend to believe the largest segment of time took place between his realization he needed to be better, or the halfway point in the movie, and this point. I think he spent decades becoming a better Phil.
Back at our metaphor, Phil has entered the age of wisdom, something that usually only comes with great age. He is now wise beyond years, and sees that his life can only improve in the service of others. There is nothing to be had by being greedy, narcissistic, or cruel. In the climax of the film, Rita “wins” Phil in a bachelor auction by spending every penny she has in her checkbook. She has seen so much good in him, she sacrifices all her money in order to be with him. I found this so incredibly sweet. She isn’t concerned with the consequences, she just knows this is important. And in the final scene of this day, Phil carves her face into an ice sculpture as a token of his love. He says: “No matter what happens tomorrow, I am happy today, because I love you.” And you can see he really believes it. It doesn’t matter if he spends all of eternity in this loop, he now sees each day as a gift and an opportunity to improve the lives of those around him. He has become truly enlightened.
The following day when the clock ticks six am, Phil wakes up beside Rita, having finally moved on to February 3rd. What I find so endearing about this scene is Phil asks Rita what he can do for her that day. He has become truly selfless. And his reward is he finally gets to move on. In our metaphor, this would represent death. Not death as we traditionally think about it, but instead the graduation of a mortal consciousness to an immortal one–moving on beyond this physical world. But only after great turmoil and change.
One of the final (but not THE final) shots is the camera panning over the clock which now says 6:01, representing the weight of time has been lifted from Phil. I personally think that should have been the last shot of the movie, but it is still a comedy and ends with a more comedic bent of Phil declaring they should live in Punxsutawney, the town he once hated.
Story-wise, this movie hits all the points and hits them perfectly. Phil’s journey is expertly crafted, and the movie soars as a result. I read that the original screenplay had the movie begin in the middle, with Phil going around and accurately predicting everything that was happening. And while this would have been a fun gimmick, I think it was wise to start the story in the beginning, so we could see the full transformation of his character. Seeing where he came from was very important to understand just how much he changed over the course of this story.
Personally I love the theme of self-improvement through service to others, which is what I take away most from this film. But I understand Buddhists, Judeo-Christians, and Jews find this story speaks to them in their own ways. And each of those is valid. There is no one right answer, only to say the themes of this movie are strong and consistent. And by weaving them seamlessly the story becomes much stronger. This is something I endure to do in my own stories, and if I can only do half as well as this twenty-five year old movie, I will have succeeded.
Thanks for sticking with me. I know that was a long one.