I’ve never written a review of Groundhog Day, as far as I know. But, I’ve seen the movie many times, and I used it in nearly every round of impromptu when I was doing competitive speech and debate in college. That last one—that’s because you can use the movie to cover just about any theme. Phil Connors is not only a great central character for a good comedy like this—not that there are many comedies like this—but he works as an everyman and he goes through all the emotions we all do every day of our lives. There is time in the film (not to mention the many parts of his journey we don’t see on screen) for joy, for sadness, for arrogance and humility, silliness and seriousness, flippancy and philosophy.
The trailer for the movie gets a lot out of the idea of “living life like there’s no tomorrow.” That is perhaps the central idea to the film. But, for Phil, it’s not just a question of doing anything and everything; he starts out arrogant and self-centered, so his early attempts to live like there’s no tomorrow are shallow and simplistic. He manipulates his way into a date, to get money, to eat a lot of junkfood… put simply, he does what any of us might do if we had the opportunity to repeat one day over and over. But, there are consequences, not the least of which is boredom.
There is a telling moment early on in the film, when Phil asks Gus and Ralph, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Ralph’s response: “That about sums it up for me.” Most of our lives are already repetitive. Day in, day out. We work our day jobs and spend our nights watching television—not all of us, certainly, but it seems the case that most of us simply cannot live life like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve got responsibilities: school, work, family, friends. Maybe the reason the film works so well is that, despite deeper philosophical themes, there’s an absurdist fantasy at the heart of it; it’s not that we want the chance to repeat a day, though fixing some mistakes could alter our lives completely, but we want the chance to spend a day doing whatever comes to mind. We wish that we could operate by our whims and whimsy. We could dress like Clint Eastwood just to go to a movie. We could eat without worrying about weight gain. We could even drive on the railroad tracks.
Or, maybe it’s just funny.
What makes Groundhog Day a good comedy, regardless of larger themes? Is it Bill Murray’s ability to play a loveable scoundrel? Is it the remarkable balance between comeuppance and growth that Phil experiences? Is it the one liners? Is it possible the subject of repeating a day, though it has been done for dramatic effect—notably, I liked ABC television’s Day Break, but it did do poorly in the ratings that maybe it proves the following point—works best as comedy because of the way comedy works, the way jokes work. Comedy often is about subverting expectations. The classic, and obvious, example is, Why did the chicken cross the road? We want an answer that gives us insight into motivation and maybe even the human condition (well, maybe not with the chicken, specifically). But, the classic response both subverts expectation and gives us just what we want, a real answer. The chicken did cross the road to get to the other side. Sure, we might want to go a few more steps up the list of causality, figure out why the chicken wanted to get to the other side, but comedy doesn’t work that way. In an interview with The Weekly, emmy-winning comedy writer and producer Ben Karlin had this to say about the challenges of writing comedy:
I think the challenges of writing comedy differ from person to person. For me, it’s always a struggle to find something interesting to say, to find a unique point of view or a way of expressing something that hasn’t been said before. Comedy is about subverting expectation and audiences are so sophisticated. They have read and watched and experienced so much that the biggest trap you can fall into is writing something that has been done before – and often done better.
Groundhog Day not only plays with the usual tropes and expectations of comedy but presents us with a plot built entirely on repetition, not only doing what’s been done before, but doing it again and again and again, providing us clear expectation in repetition then subverting that repetition. Sure, it’s a giant fantasy about living without consequences, and it’s also about seeing just how crazy Phil Connors can be in that situation, just how much can he get away with—we live vicariously through Phil and often the simplest comedy in the film comes from the subtle and not-so-subtle (Phil punching Ned Ryerson, for example) differences from day to day. Mostly, it’s played broadly, but then deeper points gets injected. For example, in the same scene that Phil has his table of desserts, Rita quotes a Sir Walter Scott poem to comment on his egocentrism. A little bit of depth to counterbalance and even augment the comedy.
Or, maybe it’s just funny.
Despite the repetitive structure, Groundhog Day still manages to have a pretty basic 3-act structure like most any other film out of Hollywood. Phil exploits his circumstances, he learns the failings of it, then he figures out that the key might not be making the best of the situation but making the best of himself. That’s Groundhog Day put simply. But, I don’t want to just put it simply. I want to break it down, tear it apart, look at its parts and what those parts tell us about life, the universe, and everything.
So, the plan: I will watch Groundhog Day every day, and I will explore its aspects and research into its tangents. I will run the film into the ground and, I hope, build it right back up again. Like Phil Connors with his day in Punxsutawney, I will probably have some crazy ideas early on, I will probably get sick of the film after a while and watching it and writing about it will become a chore. But, sometime later, maybe I can explore the film in such a way that I rebuild it, rebuild myself, and maybe help my readers, whoever they may end up being, to rebuild themselves with a better grasp of, dare I say it, the human condition.
Or, maybe it will just be funny.
Anyway, welcome to The Groundhog Day Project. Don’t forget your booties ‘cause it’s cold out there.