So, why does Rita slap Phil? And, I don’t mean the first time, when he asks her to do so on Day 2 at Gobbler’s Knob.
What we see in the “seduction” sequence is Phil doing what’s called A/B testing. In short, an A/B test involves two slightly different versions of, well, anything, and some people are exposed to one, some to the other, and the success of A is tested against the success of B. In modern, internet terms, for example, you could test two different versions of a webpage, and see which one garners more clicks or reduces the bounce rate or what have you. For Phil Connors, he A/B tests Rita a few times. Order any drink the first time, just to hear what she’ll order. Then, the next time order her drink, forge a connection in her mind. Toast to the groundhog the first time, learn she toasts to world peace, not only toast to world peace the next time but say a prayer as well and you have endeared yourself to her on at least one level. He tests and retests, finding the better option for every choice… in reality there aren’t just two options for everything, but all Phil needs to know is one of them.
A. Drink sweet vermouth
B. Drink anything else
A. Toast to world peace
B. Toast to anything else
A. Call small town people “more real, more down-to-earth”
B. Call them anything else (perhaps “hicks”)
A. Eat fudge*
B. Eat white chocolate
A. Say we should live “in the mountains, at high altitudes”
B. Say… well who knows what Phil said before he got to this?
A. Laugh when she says she studied 19th-century French poetry
B. Recite some French poetry
A. Make a snowman and just happen to have supplies in your pocket for its face
B. Well… you get the idea
* of course, fudge is still an issue, since Rita claims later, “I hate fudge.” Could the fudge thing be the one issue standing between Phil and Rita? If the chocolate shop had something Rita liked more, would Phil and Rita have gotten together that night in his room rather than her slapping him? Or, is that exactly what probably happened the very next night, leading to the next slap?
The thing is, as programmer Jeff Atwood suggests in his Coding Horror blog, this may be “the purest form of A/B testing imaginable. Given two choices, pick the one that ‘wins’, and keep repeating this ad infinitum until you arrive at the ultimate, most scientifically desirable choice.” But, Phil isn’t comfortable enough in his own skin to approach any of this honestly. It’s all a ruse, a ploy toward a single outcome. He’s not looking for what’s best. He’s just looking for another conquest at this point.
(Keep in mind, this sequence wasn’t about Rita in the original but another local woman, Tess, one of the sixty-three eligible women in Punxsutawney…(It’s interesting that even in Rubin’s original, which is darker than what we get on screen, Phil differentiates between “eligible” women and all women… and in the film, he lays a kiss on Mrs. Lancaster. I wonder if she qualifies for this eligible list.)
…Tess is one of “the last few [who] are proving more of a challenge” after he’s found forty-nine “accessible.”)
Phil may actually be in love with Rita—and his monologue later as she sleeps beside him certainly is meant to imply as much—but he’s too used to operating on the shallower level. And, the A/B testing method was too clinical, too “technically perfect” as Atwood points out. It doesn’t “ring true” to Rita. Hell, maybe it doesn’t ring true in advertising or web design either. Maybe a website is better off with some flaws, some mistakes. Maybe advertising shouldn’t be too perfectly geared to each and every potential customer.
(Flapjacks, for example, usually sold as a breakfast item, but that doesn’t mean Ralph shouldn’t be able to order some after a night out drinking… that’s where the movie is right now as I’m watching it today. Sometimes the writing is so disconnected from the viewing, it could probably be assumed I’m not watching, but I am. The movie now is on to Day 4.)
Anyway, the problem is that Phil’s date with Rita is getting more technically perfect but less, well, natural. The “seduction” sequence starts with Phil “trying to talk like normal people talk.” Therein lies the problem. He isn’t actually talking like normal people talk. He’s just putting up a front, a “normal people” front. But underneath he’s still Phil Connors, jerk.
Ray Charles, whose “You Don’t Know Me” features nicely in Groundhog Day, once said, “You better live every day like your last because one day you're going to be right.” Phil Connors gets that. I think the big problem with his A/B testing phase was that he wasn’t ever assuming today was the last day. This phase had to happen; it’s only natural. But, it wasn’t until he learned that growing was on ongoing process and tomorrow really might never come that Phil was that better man who deserved to get out of the loop.
If you know the day will repeat, if you can operate under the assumption that this day will go on and on forever, you can plan to learn the piano or to learn French (and I still contend that Phil didn’t, of course), or learn to ice sculpt, read all the books in the local library, do some A/B testing on the sixty-three eligible women…
(And maybe some of those ineligible ones, maybe some of the men… I mean, can’t Phil hook up with Bill the waiter if he wanted to? If Groundhog Day will indeed repeat ad infinitum, then is it offensive for Phil to try a bit of everything with everyone? Or is he just subscribing to the Vulcan notion of infinite diversity in infinite combinations? Given the same circumstance, I’d want to try everything there was available, get to know every person in town, learn every skill they have to teach me, and, yes, maybe try some of that A/B testing seduction of each and every one of them… or, really, I’d want to be more honest in my approach, but given infinity as the timeframe, I don’t know if I could put all my energy into just Rita (though I’m not sure the movie even tells us that this is what Phil has been doing). I think, if nothing else, her (Rita’s or any other specific option) experience of that one day and only one day would make actual monogamy virtually impossible. You’d have to branch out to more options.(For that matter, I think it’s worth noting that Rubin’s original 63 is probably a very low estimate of how many eligible women would be in Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day anyway.)
Just like you’d have to take up new hobbies all the time (you couldn’t play games, could you?), you’d have to take on new relationships also. You would have to get to know everyone in town or you would run out of things to do and, well, it’s easy to understand how the suicide option could come into play if you’re not creative enough to keep finding new and interesting things to do. Including some of the horrible stuff that we don’t get to see Phil do.)
You could do that “awful lot of work” to plan the perfect day with each of those sixty-three (plus) women and, well, everyone else. And, you’d still have time on your hands.
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to discover every person within a day’s journey of here, get to know them and understand them as real, individual people.