Groundhog Day (1993)

*. On his DVD commentary for Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis tells a story about how the movie was immediately adopted by various spiritualities and philosophies. I don’t see much connection to Zen Buddhism or the other schools and denominations he mentions, but Groundhog Day does strike me as a movie that taps into two abiding imaginative archetypes that I think go a long way to explaining its abiding charm.
*. In the first place, it’s the fantasy of the do-over. Weatherman Phil Connors has obviously made a mess of his life. He doesn’t seem to have any friends, much less a steady girlfriend, and his dreams of leaving a local TV station for the big leagues are surely going to remain only dreams. But now, thanks to a bit of movie magic, he gets to try again to get it right. He can correct his mistakes. Who doesn’t dream of that?
*. What I especially like about the way this theme is handled here is that Phil not only gets to go back and correct his mistakes, he gets to try and recapture his best moments as well. For me, the saddest scene in the movie is where he tries to recapture the magic moment with Rita after the snowball fight. But that’s not the way happiness works, is it? You have to be surprised by joy. The eternal return can be used to get out of a jam, but you can’t re-create the good times.
*. The other fantasy is that of the makeover. In movies this is often a dark male fantasy. Think My Fair Lady, or Vertigo, or Nikita. Basically a man tries to transform a woman he meets into his dream girl, usually with disastrous results. It is, however, a female fantasy of longstanding too: how the love of a good woman will turn the bad boy into an ideal mate. In real life I don’t know which of these fantasies has resulted in more misery, but since it’s a romantic comedy Groundhog Day lets the female version come true. After a lifetime of effort Phil is finally able to turn himself into someone who is eligible for love. “The things we do,” etc.
*. I said “after a lifetime of effort.” Apparently there is a whole cottage industry devoted to trying to figure out just how long Phil is stuck in the loop. Ramis has said different things. I think the original idea was that he’d been doing it for 10,000 years, but this strikes me as impossible. After only 100 years I think anyone would have simply gone insane. Leaving that aside, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to come up with a precise calculation, even if such a determination were to mean anything.
*. The original screenplay, by Danny Rubin, started in the middle of things, with Phil punching Ned. Rubin thought starting at the beginning was too predictable. That seems odd to me, given that this wasn’t that familiar a story at the time. Audiences have since become more familiar with it, but even in recent adaptations like Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day the movie still starts off before the loop begins. Audiences want that intro, and I think it makes sense dramatically.
*. I don’t find it to be a very funny movie, but I don’t think that’s what it’s going for. It has that lingering sense of sadness hanging over it. There’s a great line where Phil is talking to the local men at the bar and he asks “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and everything that you did was the same, and nothing mattered?” The honest response he gets is that “That about sums it up for me.” That’s one of the funnier lines in the movie, but it’s funny in the tragic sense that it’s true. Or at least that the guy at the bar feels it’s true. And who hasn’t felt the same way at times?
*. I think this was Ramis and Murray’s sixth collaboration and you can feel how comfortable they are with each other. I think that fits with the low-key tone of the proceedings too. They’ve been here before.
*. This is the sort of film that makes a lot of people’s favourites list. Despite how hard-hearted we’ve become, sentiment has never gone entirely out of style. I find it a movie that I appreciate more than one I have a strong personal attachment to. The attention to detail that comes out on repeated viewings is really impressive and it’s a polished product in nearly every department. It’s a great little movie I’m happy not to read too much more into.

4 thoughts on “Groundhog Day (1993)

  1. Tom Moody

    OK, here goes, with both barrels:

    My issue with this movie from the outset was that Rita sleeps with Phil on the first date, once he has become the perfect man. The audience lives (or imagines) his experiences in years of subjective time but the movie focuses on his evolution, not hers. His last looped day, when he obtains spiritual, moral, and artistic perfection, happens in a single day for her. She goes to bed with him since he is a God, or at least, the World’s Greatest Do-Gooder in the conventional, Hollywood sense of good meaning “one who experiences personal growth.” It’s a mawkish premise — extended sensitivity training focused on the bad man but, still, with physical intimacy as the ultimate reward. The Phil who hates TV and its quasi-spectacles was a much more interesting person, even if it meant he wasn’t “good” enough for the sublime Rita.

    Pure speculation here: perhaps if she were trapped in a loop, she might examine her notions of perfection and use of the soft power of withholding sex to nudge a man to attain it — implied by the conditions her shallowly-conceived character communicates in Phil’s loop. We’ll never know because this movie is deeply ensconced in the tinseltown cliche-narrative, The Heel Who Discovers the Healing Power of Love. (I couldn’t believe that Harold Ramis, the most sarcastic of SCTV cast members, directed this.)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think on the DVD commentary Ramis actually sheds a few tears at the end! He says something about how you have to approach this kind of material with sincerity.

      No doubt this is a sentimental movie. But it’s a rom-com! I think it just comes with the territory. They sort of have to end that way. I’m thinking of exceptions and all I’m coming up with is Roman Holiday (which really is a personal favourite of mine).

      I think you’re right that the Phil at the beginning was a more interesting person, but I still buy the idea that he learns self-awareness and that his being a jerk wasn’t making the world a better place for anyone. Being stuck in the loop helps him get outside himself.

  2. Tom Moody

    I thought it was a science fiction film! Apparently in the first draft of the screenplay, Rita confesses she’s in her own endless loop. If they’d used that ending I’d have walked out of the theatre smiling rather than complaining for the next 25 years (to no avail whatsoever, since it’s considered a classic).

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think the original script was something along the lines of a Twilight Zone episode, which is something that ending would have worked with. I don’t think that an ending like that would have been as popular though!


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