A poetic analysis of Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis, written by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, released in 1993.
Groundhog Day follows a clear narrative line, with plot development, a climax, resolution and all that good stuff. However, what sets it apart from other films (and what makes it so damned special) is its quirky central premise – that the same day is being repeated over, and over, and over (and over) again. What we get is a film that is stuck in its tracks, failing to get much further than its own introduction. Narratives can be loosely broken down into five sections: Introduction – Development – Complication – Climax – Resolution, a format that is playfully manipulated to create circular plot that the protagonist is required to break out of. Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is introduced and developed, but the complication is that his story becomes stuck and he literally can’t go forward. Meanwhile, his narrative (his personal development) continues apace, and this is what the audience is watching. In this sense, the film operates on two levels; the circular, time loop plot and the linear narrative. Phil is trapped in the former and the audience can watch his development in the latter until the cycle is eventually broken.
One of the reasons that Groundhog Day is so distinctive and memorable a film is that it plays around so delightfully (can I say that?) with film language. Ramis sets up a fairly average sequence of events that structure Phil’s day. It’s just a normal day. But, with the repetition of these events – waking up to ‘I Got You Babe’, meeting Ned ‘bing’ Ryerson, having lunch with Andie ‘blood sausage’ McDowell, et cetera, the film is given a grid of circumstances for Phil to inhabit. Every shot, every pan, every edit, becomes a familiar cue for the audience and we eagerly anticipate the next variation of Phil’s day. The writers have given themselves what I think is the greatest source of creativity: boundaries. Literally repeating itself, Groundhog Day works off a limited vocabulary of scenes and set pieces and the writers are subsequently forced to be as inventive as possible to prevent the narrative from being as redundant as the plot. The creativity comes from Phil’s varying responses to this and the limitless possibilities his changing moods throw forwards. Clever stuff.
As stated above, the repetition of key scenes/ images is what gives Groundhog Day a sense of drive, but the subtle variations of these repetitions is what makes the film so fascinating. Because Phil is the one variant in a relentlessly unchanging landscape, the audience finds themselves scrutinising him with an unusual level of intensity. We notice his increasing scruffiness in the first two acts, as he gradually gives up hope, and his sharp return to form as he plans for redemption fall into place. We notice small details of background that become increasingly important as Phil begins to explore the town of Punxsutawney. The puddle he keeps forgetting to avoid, the game of Jeopardy on TV that he develops a sixth sense for, the ‘background’ characters he eventually shares intimate moments with, and so on. This is a film about the ordinary becoming extraordinary, a theme that is played out with subtlety through increasing focus on various images.
I can’t quite work out if writing this thing would have felt like the most exciting thing ever or chore. Probably both. As stated in ‘Form’ (above), Groundhog Day is a film that sticks, skipping like a scratched record very early in the plot. Naturally, an uneasiness is created by this as we realise that the film is quite literally going no-where. At the end of every day, Phil will indeed wake up, again, at 6.00, midway through the second verse of ‘I Got You Babe’. Thankfully, the character of Phil is so compelling that we don’t simple abandon his narrative, but actually become drawn into it, keen to see how he will cope with purgatory. However, while the plot is even and cyclical, the events that unfold are not. The film takes us through confusion, boredom, crisis, tragedy, comedy and more, with careful editing of each day to fluctuate the rhythm as is necessary. Some meetings with Ned (Bing!) are longer than others for example. The writers have given themselves enough flexibility to ensure that each repeated day is a completely new experience (despite being same ol’ same ol’…).
I’ve kind of touched on this in ‘Rhythm’ (above). For me, Groundhog Day is a truly complete movie experience, largely due to the range of moods it throws forward. The over-arching tone is comic, watching our pathetic anti-hero battle with his own fate and negotiate various funny situations. But, within that, we get a tangible sense of tragedy throughout. Phil is trapped, in a heaven or hell of his own creation and this is deeply disturbing. In the film’s third act we see Phil take himself to the brink of oblivion and beyond, deciding to end his life in spectacular fashion (driving off a cliff in a high speed police chase having taken the town’s groundhog hostage). The high drama of this is met with what I feel to be the coldest response the writers could muster – waking up again, to start the same day. The pain and joy this creates is summarised in that beautiful/tragic montage of Phil continuing to commit suicide in every way imaginable, culminating in a graceful slow-motion fall from the top of a building. This is joy and pain, release and tragedy all rolled into one. On the one hand Phil can live like there’s no tomorrow (which is great) but he’s faced with an infinity that will be shaped by his own imagination (which is terrifying).
What’s all the more remarkable is that the writers do not shy away from the comedy that underpins this tragedy, or vice versa. Phil’s suicides become a running gag of sorts, and when he eventually opens up to Andie McDowell in the café, he does so with a casual sense of indifference that invites us to laugh. “I’m a god” he says, and we have to smile. If not, we might cry.
Ultimately, the film, for all its comic moments and saccharine-sweet “let’s live here” ending, is actually quite dark. Phil is forced to dismantle his entire person and discover the meaning of love and face his own mortality, before he is allowed to move on. The over-riding tone of this resolution is relief, but a relief swathed in joy. We have seen the trauma he undergoes for his ‘happy ending’, and I don’t think the writers are asking us to question the validity of his redemption.
Reading back over what I’ve just written, I don’t think that it’s an accident that there are scattered references to religion and spirituality in here. For me, even as the 11 year-old I was when this film was first released, Groundhog Day felt important because it is a discourse in what it is to be human. One of life’s greatest challenges is routine; the simple fact that as we age, life becomes a cycle of stuff that we must negotiate and deal with whilst attempting to work out what it all ‘means’. From a pessimistic point of view, life is exactly like a broken record – a grid that we inhabit until we die. And how do we prevent this grid from defeating us? Do we bludgeon forward and do the same thing we did yesterday, hoping change will greet us tomorrow? (like Phil’s first few repeated days) Do we indulge in hedonism with bad food, money and sex? (like Phil experiments with) Do we admit defeat and let our lives die? (like Phil). No. Phil tries all of this and none of it works. So, what is this film fundamentally about?
Sounds cheesy, but the answer is love. Phil can only move on in life when he gives himself up to love completely and without equivocation – the love of art (literature and music….), the love of others (helping as many people as he can, trying to save a dying homeless man he used to ignore, catching a falling boy from a tree…), self love (learning an instrument, reading widely, learning to ice-sculpt…) and, of course, true romantic love. The film culminates in a ‘perfect day’. Phil’s deep, rich, new-found love, puts his own well-being as secondary to that of the people around him, and as a result, he doesn’t even have to try to woo Andi McD. She comes to him.
One of the film’s most poignant lines is, ironically, one of its most cheesy, when Phil announces ‘let’s live here’. He makes his own heaven out of what could very easily be hell – a deeply profound and spiritual idea. We create our own fate and shape our own destinies, regardless of how restrictive the grid of living may appear to be. What a film.