What if There Is No Tomorrow? – Groundhog Day and Bringing Big Concepts into Comedy

For most of the nation, the date of February 2 means very little and is like pretty much any other day.  But, it is designated as Groundhog Day on our calendars because of a centuries old tradition based around a superstition started by the Pennsylvania Dutch in colonial times.  According to tradition, every year on the second of February, groundhogs will rise from their hibernation and exit their nests, and upon entering the sunlight, if they spot their own shadow, it will mean that there will be six more weeks of winter.  It’s an old fashioned tale with no real bearing on how weather really works, and yet it’s a tradition significant enough to be marked on the calendar.  The rural communities of Pennsylvania where the legend originated still make a big deal out of the tradition, with the famous Punxsutawney Phil festival being the country’s most notable celebration of the holiday.  But for many years, only rural America took this tradition with any real weight.  It’s only been within the last 25 years that Groundhog Day that the holiday has garnered national and even international interest, and this isn’t because of a revival of the traditions itself, but because of a movie.  In 1993, the team of comedy legends Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis released a little movie appropriately called Groundhog Day, which delivered a rather unique story about a man who repeats the same day over and over again and is the only one aware of what’s happening to him.  And that day just so happens to be Groundhog Day, with the Punxsatwaney festival as a backdrop.  On the surface, the movie is not all that unusual a project for wither Murray or Ramis to undertake.  It makes brilliant use of Bill Murray’s dry sense of humor and Harold Ramis’ direction keeps everything low key and restrained.  And yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but marvel at how much the theme and ideas behind the story stay with you.  Comedies are often made to give us amusement, but Groundhog Day miraculously made us both laugh and think, and even contemplate things we never expected to think about after seeing a comedy like how the universe works and what role we have to play within it.

Groundhog Day isn’t the first story to ever have tackled the idea of repeating the same day over again in an endless loop.  The concept actually dates back to 1892 with the short story “Christmas Every Day” by American novelist William Dean Howells.  In that story, a selfish young person is forced to relive the holiday of Christmas in a constant repeat, until he realizes the folly of indulging in the shallow festivities and learns the true meaning of how to honor the holiday.  The story is indeed sourced as an inspiration by Groundhog Day  screenwriter Danny Rubin, who developed the original treatment of the film.  Working in collaboration with Ramis, Rubin took the story concept further by incorporating the idea of a person being stuck in a day he absolutely loathes, until it begins to soften his attitude over time.  For Groundhog Day, the story is one about not about breaking out of the cycle of a single day, but about breaking free of the cycle of one’s life.  Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is introduced to us as a self-centered narcissist who doesn’t give a care to anything in the world other than his own ambition.  He is stuck in his own self-created hole of isolation, where he only is able to get by in life on the merits of his talents as a TV weatherman.  He is only able to pretend to be a man of the people, but in reality, he shuns all those around him, reducing him to one function in life because he has no one else to rely on.  Essentially, he is a metaphorical groundhog, if you will.  And what the story does is to force Phil out of his hole and see what his life is and could be.  Unlike the “Christmas Every Day” story line, the movie is not about growing a renewed appreciation for the holiday itself; Punxsatwaney Phil and the festival are irrelevant in the end.  It’s about a renewed appreciation of life, and understanding that small little happy moments are what make things worth it in the end.  And what makes the movie Groundhog Day so memorable is the fact that they address these ideas in such a thoughtful and hilarious way.

Groundhog Day in many ways owes a lot of it’s style of story-telling to the films of Frank Capra.  Capra in many ways wrote the book on how to bring socially conscious stories into comedy.  Movies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) showed that a movie not only could be laugh out loud funny, but also could make you think as well.  Most often, they would reveal lessons in class differences or the roles men and women play in society, but more than any other, Capra would delve into the idea of individual finding their own worth in the world.  In his movies, he defined the American every-man; the person who could shape their own destiny only after they are confronted with and come to terms with their shortcomings in life.  Most of Capra’s films tended to skew closer to reality, but he could also find meaning in his movies through supernatural elements as well.  It’s a Wonderful Life  in particular feels very akin to Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist is shown a different direction in his life only after being confronted with the realization of how life would be different if they did absolutely nothing.  The big difference of course between what Capra created and what Murray, Rubin and Ramis imagined is the personality of the American every-man at it’s center.  George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is a good man with low self esteem who just needs to have his faith in life renewed.  Phil Connors is a product of a more cynical time, where he sees value in himself and nothing else, and the change for him is to make him see how happiness is not in self worth but in being a value to others.  Basically George Bailey and Phil Connors come to the same conclusion in their respective stories, but from completely different starting points.  The Capra-esque approach helps to cement the story in a very personable way, especially with regards to understanding the person that Phil is and what he’s going to become.  But, the movie also follows the crucial formula of making the audience think about the implications of the story long after they have seen it and helping them understand the lessons within.

For me myself, I am always astonished by how well the movie is constructed.  It is without a doubt one of the finest screenplays ever constructed; never once faulting in the cinematic possibilities offered up by it’s premise.  Harold Ramis’ direction in particular is extraordinary in how subtly in lays out the mechanics of the story.  Every little story bit needs to work multiple times without ever seeming repetitive, which calls for a lot of continuity checking and keeping the actors within the correct mindset throughout the shoot.  And much like a Capra film, we don’t just get to know more about our main character, but really the entire community as well, and it’s all done with the idea that they are all meeting Phil Connors for the first time.  All the different variations that Ramis puts on the same repeating bits throughout the film are so clever and actually build up a natural progression within the story.  And that includes very recognizable common threads, like the clock radio that always begins the day with Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” or Phil stepping into a puddle after running into contact with the obnoxious Ned Ryerson.   I especially like the editing he does with some scenes, where Murray’s Phil realizes he’s made an error and then it cuts to the the same moment on another version of the day where he corrects his mistake, which just makes you realize that Phil has had to repeat all the same steps exactly just to reach this same moment.  It’s a couple seconds for us, but almost an eternity for him.  It’s hilarious, but also kind of mind-boggling at the same.  And that is essentially the genius behind this movie.  It takes the concept, uses it in funny ways, but also causes us to realize the real world implications of it all, and how severe it must actually be.   The movie takes us on a journey into a man’s existential crisis and it is both silly and scary at the same time, making us wonder what we ourselves would do in a similar situation.

But Groundhog Day stands out in a different way than just well it uses it’s gimmick.  It is also the rare intellectual comedy, and I don’t mean that it’s a comedy that plays towards a classier, more well-educated crowd, but one that instead asks all of it’s audiences to contemplate it’s grander concepts.  When Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin were first drafting the script, they thought that a sea of condemnation was going to come their way from both the faith based and scientific communities, believing that their story was going to be nit picked apart for either being too bold or not clever enough.  To their surprise, an outpouring of praise from all corners came their way, and they soon realized that their silly little movie hit everyone on a very human level.  Since it’s premiere, Groundhog Day has since become a high water mark for what can be called the “high concept” comedy.  To be high concept, a movie has to deliver on bold premises that push the limits of what is commonly expected within the genre and this is especially hard to find in the often simplistic realm of comedy.  Comedies usually just touch upon the life’s little quirks, and don’t bring in anything more complex than that such as the mechanics of time and space being warped.  Some films have tried to reach for a grander level of meaning with their comedy, like contemplating the role of God in one’s life like they did in Bruce Almighty (2003), or literally living life in another’s shoes with Being John Malkovich (1999) or even seeing a man cope with his own self-imposed loneliness as he befriends a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016).  All these movies share in common with Groundhog Day is the ability to hit some deep philosophical points while at the same time never loosing the ability to have fun with it as well.  There are movies that managed to fail to capture the same kind of effect, like Adam Sandler’s Click (2006), which squandered an intriguing premise by indulging too much in the cruder potentials of the gimmick, making the tonal shifts as it tries to hit it’s deeper points feel way too clunky.

I’ll admit from experience; bringing high concept to comedy is difficult, and often results in a story that is either tone deaf or just very convoluted.  When I was going through film school, my requirement for graduating was to complete a feature length screenplay as my thesis.  Being pretty novice, my inclination at the time was to write something that I felt appealed to my own tastes.  Because Groundhog Day was one of my favorite movies (and still is), I decided to craft a screenplay in the same vein.  In particular, I drew inspiration from the core mechanic of the story, being the repeating time element.  The difference in my script was that my character had control over his ability to repeat time, but the scenes I wrote where my main character repeats moments multiple times before he gets them right were I have to say directly inspired by the similar moments in Groundhog Day.  Suffice to say, the finished thesis script, while good enough to help me earn my degree, is no where within the same league as Groundhog.  I have nothing but the most profound respect for that screenplay, and my experience with trying to capture some of the same feeling within my own writing just shows me how much further I must go to even reach that kind of level.  And I’m not the only one that is in awe of the incredible story mechanic that the movie uses.  In recent years, we’ve seen the same element used in other genres, like in sci-fi with Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and also horror with Happy Death Day (2017).  While it can be said that all of these stories derive themselves from the original Howells short story (including the Japanese manga that Edge of Tomorrow is based on), their cinematic language is certainly heavily influenced by the foundation left by Groundhog Day.  Each and every one seems to relish the idea of their characters growing smarter as they are going through an endless cycle of the same day, incrementally improving one calculated step at a time.  To this day, all these stories are inevitably compared with Groundhog, and sometimes can be unfairly judged against it.  That shouldn’t have to be the case, as some movies offer interesting variations on the gimmick, but it just goes to show how much of an impact the movie had by being the first.

One lesson to learn from Groundhog Day from a film-making stand point is that for a movie with a unusual concept to work, it has to function first and foremost like a story.  The great thing is that Groundhog Day never tries to be presumptuous with it’s audience.  It entrusts them to follow along as it lets the craziness unfold.  In particular, it makes the very smart choice of never needing to explain itself.  Phil Connors goes through this incredible experience, and we are never explained as to exactly why and how it happens.  It’s left up to the viewer to make up their minds as to why this unusual event is happening, and decide whether it really matters in the end.  I’m sure that people have speculated that it’s an act of God, or that Phil is part of some twisted experiment, or that he has unintentionally fallen into a time anomaly.  Whatever the case, the movie rightly focuses not on what is happening in the story, but instead on how it affects Phil.  It’s a personal journey, and I think that is why audiences respond so well to it.  We are just as in the dark as Phil is with what is going on, and that allows us to absorb the personal turmoil that he faces more fully.  A less subtle approach would have had Phil digging for clues and pulling back the curtain to see who’s pulling the strings, which would have spoiled all the magic of his story.  We instead see a personal transformation take place, and that in turn inspires us the viewer to reexamine our own life.  What would we do if there was no tomorrow; would we lash out at the cruel trick being pulled on us, or would we strive to make those same 24 hours worthwhile every time.  In the end, Phil comes to learn that striving for the perfect day is not a pursuit of self-interest, but instead a pursuit of giving one’s self.  By movie’s end, Phil has reached a point where he knows every detail of the town of Punxatawney, down to the exact second, and he uses that knowledge to not play around but instead to be there at the right moment to help everyone else’s needs.  And after he has managed to touch everyone’s lives around him, he is then released from his prison.  It’s that feeling of watching the cleansing of one’s soul that makes the movie as special as it is.

Groundhog Day is a masterpiece in quite the most unexpected way.  What started as just a silly premise used as a starring vehicle for Bill Murray is now regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made.  Not only that, it has set a new high bar for comedies seeking to deliver on higher concepts, as well as inspired a whole class of like-minded stories that try to utilize the same time warping gimmick.  I’m sure that Murray, Rubin and Ramis were all taken by surprise by how well this movie resonated when was first released and for years after.  The studio (Columbia) especially didn’t see the potential right away, and mistakenly released the film in mid February to coincide for the holiday that is it’s namesake, instead of releasing as originally intended in the Fall of 1992, so that it could qualify for the Oscars that year.  Bill Murray would have been a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination that year, but sadly the unfavorable release date caused the movie to be lost in the early winter deadlands, making it all but forgotten by the next Oscars.  Thankfully, the movie has achieved classic status over the last 25 years, and now marks the milestone regarded as the masterpiece that it truly is.  For me, it represents story-telling at it’s finest, utilizing an unusual story mechanic to it’s fullest and finding the right amount of comedy within it’s premise.  It’s as close of a call back to classic, Capra-esque human comedies that we’ve seen in our more cynical time, and still feels as fresh today as ever.  Too few comedies actually use the medium of cinema to it’s fullest extant; giving us stories that need the magic of film-making to come to life.  With it’s clever use of editing and simple staging, Groundhog Day is a movie that continues to reveal new details and layers for the viewer to delightfully uncover with every viewing.  I still hold it in high regard, both as a cinematic experience, and as an example of superb, well thought out screenwriting, and now 25 years later it even has made me appreciate this little February tradition.  Only a comedy could find so much meaning and depth in the celebration of such a silly holiday for a groundhog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.