Wednesday, February 2, 2011

‘Groundhog Day’: Not a Romantic Comedy Either

Another movie frequently described as a romantic comedy is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993). And at the risk of angering those rom-com-philes that I haven’t already turned into mortal enemies with my City Lights dissent, I don’t think of the Bill Murray starrer that way either.

Yes, it’s a wonderful comedic concoction, with enough Hollywood-honed craftsmanship to keep it fast-paced and engaging, but with enough thought-provoking smarts to raise it well above the average Tinseltown programmer and make it attractive to the art-house crowd — in a modest, unshowy way.

Anyone reading this post probably knows the fantastical premise of Groundhog Day: Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a self-centered Pennsylvania T.V. weatherman who, while covering the Groundhog Day story in Punxsutawney, finds himself inexplicably living the same February 2 over and over again. Finding himself in this unintelligible existential situation, Phil is forced to confront himself. And overcoming his selfish egocentrism draws him closer to co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell). The most hat-tipping aspect to this supernatural set-up is that the filmmakers never feel compelled to explain Phil’s extraordinary predicament. The audience can only infer that Phil is taught a Job-like lesson of humility and unselfishness by some chronology-controlling Higher Power (which ultimately, of course, is the writing team of Ramis and Danny Rubin).

It’s easy to see why audiences would consider Groundhog Day a romantic comedy: Phil and Rita come together in the end. But I beg to differ. To me, invoking Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy once again, the film’s central question isn’t: “Will Phil and Rita become a couple?” The question is: “Will Phil get over himself and come to appreciate the life and people around him?” The fact that Rita eventually falls in love with the déjà vu-chastened Phil — after he spent much of the story trying to turn her into one more notch on his bedpost — is the movie’s sign that Phil has finally become a better, more caring person and deserves to be released from his lesson-teaching time warp.

In fact, when I first saw Groundhog Day — which I have watched multiple times since — I had a sort of revelation of my own. I remember thinking to myself as I left the theatre, “Bravo! The filmmakers took their idea to the next level!” It occurred to me that if I had come up with the idea for Groundhog Day, I probably wouldn’t have gotten beyond the love story; I probably wouldn’t have gotten past Phil (whom I probably would have conceived as a nicer guy) “winning” Rita via his unstuck-in-time advantage. In other words, if I had come up with the idea for Groundhog Day, I would have made it a “mere” romantic comedy, without the existential angst that Phil’s paranormal predicament forced him to confront — the story element that makes the movie so much richer. (This tidbit may partially explain why I am not a working writer in Hollywood.)

Do you still strongly dispute what I say? Do you still call Groundhog Day a romantic comedy? What’s that you say? Pistols at sunrise? No, I won’t get into a donnybrook with you. After all, Ramis’ movie is certainly structured more as a romantic comedy than City Lights is, so if you insist on thinking of Groundhog Day as a rom-com, more power to you. But I don’t see Rita as Phil’s co-equal female lead. He may eventually decide to change his self-centered ways in earnest after confiding his time-bending predicament to her and listening to what she has to say, but it’s to Phil’s credit (and the writers’!) that he takes his sights off winning over Rita and, instead, puts his energies into improving himself as a person.

As much as I love the genre of the romantic comedy, Groundhog Day surpasses it to tell a story of one human’s heroic rise above a hellish existential quandary that the universe has perplexingly forced upon him. Phil’s “joyful defeat” doesn’t come from giving himself over to his feelings for Rita, but from artfully adapting to the impossible. And as we all stumble through the less hellish existential quandaries that linear time tosses to us, it’s a lesson we can all take to heart.

Trailer for Groundhog Day

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