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I’m late getting started this year—Omicron outbreak in the family over Christmas. Hope you all have managed to avoid it! But I’m back, and I always like to celebrate this off-beat holiday with a movie breakdown.
As the classic It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas, the classic Groundhog Day is to, well, Groundhog Day.
It’s one of my favorite films and one of the best teaching movies I know: with an unlikable protagonist who goes through a major character arc because of the crucible of love (and with help from the weather gods). A time loop story, an alternate reality story, and a high-concept comedy, it’s also a male redemption story which manages to hit all the right love story beats while at the same time completely satirizing those beats, starting with the concept of the Magical Day.
I see new things in the film every time I watch. And I’m not the first to suggest it, but it’s probably the official film of coronavirus viewing, as like Phil, we might just be trapped until WE learn from our own confinement and repetition imposed by - the virus gods?
Let’s take a look at the first act.
Written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, Directed by Harold Ramis
ACT I, SEQUENCE ONE
OPENING IMAGE: This is one of my favorite, sly opening images of all time. It’s a shot of very fast moving clouds in a blue sky, with some sort of carnival music underneath. Now, this is a natural image for the story, which is about a weatherman. But I think there’s a lot more going on with this image. Those are very active clouds. I would even say they’re scheming. Yes, I’m from Berkeley, and this may be some over anthropomorphizing on my part (or possibly some sort of flashback) — but I think the filmmakers are deliberately making the weather an antagonist — and mentor — for the protagonist, who has some pretty severe need of character change. Call it weather, call it the weather gods, call it fate, but think about it. There’s no obvious human antagonist in this story. Instead, there is some kind of supernatural force working here to effect the change in surly protagonist Phil Connors.
The shot to me also recalls the opening image of It’s a Wonderful Life, to which this film obviously owes much. In IAWL, the opening scene consists of snow falling heavily on small town Bedford Falls, with voice-over prayers for someone named George Bailey, which drift gradually upward until we fix on clusters of stars in a night sky. Two of the constellations start to talk about how this is George’s critical night — and we understand there is going to be some heavenly intercession in whatever this George Bailey’s crisis is.
And intercession is exactly what happens with Phil in Groundhog Day, in a more subtle, but very effective way.
CUT TO: A news studio, with weatherman Phil Connors doing his shtick in front of a blue screen (basically waving his arms around, a nice visual depiction of the meaninglessness of his job). However, despite his sarcasm and his obvious disdain for what he does — and disdain for his coworkers, too — Phil has star quality (it’s Bill Murray, after all), and he is more than providing the show that the job calls for.
HERO’S OUTER DESIRE: Phil wants out of Pittsburg and onto a major network. One of his first off-camera lines of dialogue is that a major network is interested in him. Yes, have the hero STATE WHAT HE WANTS.
We learn right away that Phil is en route to one of his most despised shoots — up to tiny Punxsutawney to report on the annual Groundhog Day festival (the INCITING INCIDENT — he’s sent off on a job). Going with him are long-suffering cameraman Larry and wholesome, optimistic producer Rita (LOVE INTEREST), whom we see first on camera, trying to figure out how the blue screen works. There’s a long close up on Phil’s face as he watches her — it looks like he thinks this woman is a moron. At least, that’s what we would expect him to be thinking. Actually, this is his real CALL TO ADVENTURE (so often in a love story the CALL is seeing the beloved for the first time). And much later in the story Phil confesses to a sleeping Rita what he was actually thinking when he looked at her — it’s a wonderful PLANT.
So they’re off on the road; under the credits we see shots of the big city (relatively), Pittsburgh, then the van drives over a bridge and into snow-dusted mountains with small towns. (Crossing INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD. Remember that bridges are overt symbols of transition and change.) The song: “I’m Your Weatherman.”
In the van, Phil mocks both the festival and impossibly upbeat Rita mercilessly, but still does it with enough Bill Murray charm that we see Rita is amused, and attracted. (Right off the bat we get the DANCE scene — they play well together and Rita is unflapped by Phil’s volleys; she’s able to keep his humor from descending into outright meanness. But meanness is definitely a danger; Phil desperately needs redeeming.)
The crew arrives on Main Street, Punxsutawney, which if you ask me looks exactly like Bedford Falls from IAWL. Rita has booked Phil into a nice B&B while she and Larry are staying in a cheap hotel. She tells him to “Get some sleep.”
And here we have Phil’s real entry INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD: the gateway into the time loop that will keep Phil trapped for most of the story. It’s one of the most unique doorways in film history, and inspired a cult craze for flip clocks:
The lights go out, and then up on the flip clock by Phil’s bed — as it clicks over to 6 a.m. for the first time in the film as “I Got You, Babe” plays. (I have to think this is the Fates having a laugh; they certainly have “got” Phil. But of course, it’s also a love song….)
And the clock has ushered Phil into an alternate reality.
The whole following sequence — every comic bit, line of dialogue, action and character in it — is the master sequence for all the variations on it that are to come.
• Phil washes up at the sink to the obnoxious patter of the radio jockeys talking about Groundhog Day.
• Phil is scathing to a cheery overweight guest in the upstairs hall.
• Downstairs, Phil mocks the even more cheery proprietress of the B&B.
• On the street, Phil joins the townspeople heading toward Gobbler’s Knob.
• Phil pretends he has no money for the elderly panhandler on a street corner.
• Ned Ryerson, a high school non-friend of Phil’s, recognizes him and tries to sell him life insurance.
• Phil steps in an icy pothole while trying to escape from Ned. (This is a sly reference to a spiritual parable: A man walks along a road. He falls into a hole. He gets out of the hole and keeps walking. After a while he sees another hole in front of him. He keeps walking and falls into the hole. He gets out and keeps walking. He comes to another hole. This time he walks around it and continues on.)
• Phil walks through the throngs of Groundhog Day festival-goers at the Knob (as the band plays “The Pennsylvania Polka”) to join Rita and Larry. Phil does the TV commentary on the groundhog festival: groundhog “Phil” is removed from his cave, consults with town fathers, and sees his shadow. Six more weeks of winter (FORESHADOWING).
• Phil insists on leaving town immediately.
• On the road, the crew hits a roadblock — cars are being turned back because of a big blizzard. HERO LOCKED INTO THE SITUATION. This is a trope in romantic comedy — the Fates seem to intervene in the form of the weather, forcing the hero or heroine onto a path s/he hadn’t planned for, as we also see in New in Town and Leap Year. Groundhog Day takes this and many other romantic comedy clichés and mocks them at the same time that it gets all the mileage it can out of the romance of the situations — which is a big reason the story appealed equally to male and female audiences. Note that the same slightly surreal music from the opening shot is playing under this scene — it’s the Fates stepping in, I’m telling you! I’d also call this the ANTAGONIST’S PLAN. It’s just delicious that the weather has turned into Phil’s opponent. And Phil knows it, as he rails at the roadblock cop: “I make the weather.” (Uh oh — this is DEFYING THE GODS, if I’m not mistaken. It’s never good when mortals do that….)
• Back in the B&B, Phil can’t find transportation or even a phone line out of town.
• In his room, he tries to shower and is assaulted by icy water; the pipes are frozen.
• He goes to bed. [18:30]
And in the morning, Phil wakes up — to the exact same clock shot, the exact same song, the exact same radio patter. Phil assumes the repetition is a studio gaffe: they’ve put in yesterday’s tape by mistake. (A great rational response to a bizarre situation.) But when he looks out the window there’s very little snow on the ground, and people seem to be headed toward Gobbler’s Knob in droves, just as they did yesterday.
Out in the hallway he runs into the same portly guest, who asks him the same cheery questions. Phil starts to get uneasy, then attacks the guest, demanding to know what’s going on.
In the breakfast room, a dazed Phil is nicer to the proprietress just from shock.
He is increasingly distressed as he goes to Gobbler’s Knob (meeting Ned again, stepping in the icy pothole) and finds the festivities occurring in the same order. His newscast is considerably less sarcastic, and Rita wonders.
By now, sure that the blizzard is coming and he’s trapped, Phil doesn’t leave in the van with Larry and Rita.
Back at the B&B he again phones a travel agent and tries to get out of town some other way; when the travel agent suggests he try again tomorrow, Phil rails, “What if there isno tomorrow? There wasn’t today.” A nice bit of comic dialogue that also clearly states Phil’s FEAR. (SPELL IT OUT.)
Before he goes to sleep, he breaks a pencil and sets it on the bed table. (TESTING THE RULES.) [25:44]
Phil wakes for the third time to the same song, the same radio banter. The pencil is intact, reconstituted.
Phil speeds through the same morning sequence of events, then at Gobbler’s Knob tells Rita he’s not going to do the broadcast; he’s already done it twice already, and something is terribly wrong. Rita insists he do the show, they’ll talk after. [27:30]
At the diner after the broadcast, Phil tells Rita, “I’m reliving the day over and over. I need help.” Rita thinks he needs a doctor. (So this is the minor, initial PLAN.) Note the stopped clocks on the wall behind Phil (see photo below), and the bumper sticker that says “The Spirit” behind Rita. In fact, the Tip Top café logo outside on the building is a clock — with no hands.
Rita and Larry take Phil to a doctor. The CAT scan comes out clean; the doctor suggests a shrink. Phil visits a very young psychologist who has no idea what to do with his problem, but suggests they meet again tomorrow. Yeah, right.
Phil gets drunk in a bowling alley with two locals. He asks them, “What if you woke up in the same place every day and every day was just the same and there was nothing you could do about it?” The men seem to feel that’s life, in a nutshell. (THEME.) As they leave the bar, the two men are way too drunk to drive, so Phil gets into the driver’s seat of the car, and then suddenly takes off, asking, “What if there were no consequences?” One of the drunks answers, “We could do whatever we wanted.” And Phil says, “Exactly.” He races through the town, picking up a police tail, drives on the railroad tracks, barely missing a train, and crashes into a giant groundhog cutout in a parking lot. The sequence ends with the jail cell door closing on Phil ….[35 minutes.]
ACT ONE CLIMAX (A comic car chase, crash, SETPIECE.)
… and Phil wakes up in the B&B bed, to the same clock, the same song. This time he is elated, though. Downstairs, he asks the proprietress if the cops have been by looking for him, and when she says no, he kisses her. He announces “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore!” We see immediately his PLAN is to take every advantage of his new situation — and we’re already looking forward to what Bill Murray is going to do with this. [37 min.]
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