It’s Groundhog Day!!! Well, sort of. Tomorrow it is and since I was raised on Bill Murray movies (like many others, though not nearly to the extreme my sisters and I were) this is essentially Bill Murray Day. So in honor of the ridiculous holiday I am breaking down the movie that became a game-changer for Murray and writer/director Harold Ramis’s careers.
Groundhog Day premiered in 1993 starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott. The original script was written by Danny Rubin with the final draft written by Rubin and writer/director Harold Ramis. There is actually a book by Rubin with the original script and a breakdown of the process of developing and rewriting it. The book is absolutely fantastic and a must read for screenwriters.
WANT: To do whatever he wants in the loop and then end the loop.
NEED: To not be selfish, cranky, pessimistic
Why do we empathize? We all get in modes in life where we’re sick of the daily grind and wish we could just have whatever we want when we want it. We identify with the hedonism.
INNER: Phil’s selfish desires
EXTRA PERSONAL: The repeating days
Phil wakes up to discover that the day is repeating and no one but he is aware of it.
PLOT PUSH / FIRST ACT DECISION
Phil gets drunk with locals and realizes he is living in a world without rules. He can do whatever he wants.
Phil steals from the town, seduces various women, and does whatever he wants without thinking of how it would effect others.
Phil sets his sights on Rita but she is not easily won.
Determining that he cannot always have what he wants (by way of Rita’s rejection), Phil kidnaps the Groundhog Punxatawney Phil and drives over the cliff in the hopes that it will end the cycle but he still wakes up at 6am the next day.
Phil repeatedly kills himself, growing more and more depressed. Life is meaningless.
FALSE CLIMAX / LOW POINT
Having no reason not to, Phil tells Rita that he is repeating the same day. He is a god. Though she is initially hesitant she eventually believes him. Unfortunately, Phil still wakes up at 6am the next day. No Rita.
PLOT PUSH / THIRD ACT DECISION
Phil decides that he can make life better for others if not himself and sets out to help those he has studied throughout the town. Everything is great until he is unable to help a homeless man who is old and sick and dies every night regardless of what Phil does. It is simply the man’s time.
Phil changes his viewpoint. Life is out of his control, so help those around him and help himself in the process.
He learns new skills and has a positive outlook on life. At the town’s annual bash, Phil shows Rita and coworker Larry how he has won over the entire town and through his kind heart, Phil now finally wins Rita without even trying. They spend the night together, completely platonic, and Phil wakes to find the cycle has ended.
Phil and Rita are now together and it’s a new day.
I was going to just do a five point break down but I couldn’t stop myself. There is a reason this movie has not only stood the test of time, it has also wound up on many lists of best comedy films as well religious and philosophical. It is absolutely fantastic.
Now to quickly wrap things up… it is February and this movie very much is a romantic comedy, as are most films that pit the protagonist against a positive antagonist as seen here. I’ll explain…
With your standard personal antagonist there are two kinds: Negative, meaning the worst possible version of your protagonist. Think about Elton/Amber in Clueless, they are the epitome of selfish/spoiled teens. On Cher’s other side you have her love interest Josh, who is incredibly selfless and challenging Cher to become a better person.
In this film there is only a positive antagonist: Rita. Phil is a selfish, cranky pessimist. Rita loves life and people. She loves her job. She can basically find something to love in everything she does because she essentially feeds off the happy energy of others. It is this very quality that makes her annoying to Phil initially, then becomes something to conquer to prove himself “better” in the middle of the film, and ultimately he admires her and loves her for this very quality.
This movie is also written/directed by one of my major screenwriting idols: Harold Ramis. I heard again this week from friends that learning and following writing structure has become a “joke” in the industry, but I’ve also heard from a generation how much Ramis’s work touched their lives. Ramis when asked how he learned to write said (and I’m paraphrasing) I paid attention in English class. Yes, rules can be prohibitive and boring but they don’t have to be. Ramis took an intriguing broad comedy and turned it into one of the greatest comedies of all time. He studied the craft and through that his writing and creativity flourished.
RIP Harold Ramis and Happy Groundhog Day.