“Groundhog’s Day” Structure and Phil Connors’ Character Arc

 

It’s Groundhog’s Day folks!

Groundhog’s Day is one of my favorite films, it’s one of those comedies that are way more than the sum of their parts, not that there’s anything wrong with comedies that aren’t… but some people tend to come out feeling, if not better, more purposeful after watching Groundhog’s Day. That is the power of that film.

We could talk about it’s philosophy, or it’s message, but I’d rather talk about it’s structure and see how it’s thanks to it’s well-built structure that the message gets through, so bear with me while I try to break it down.

If you haven’t seen it… well, what are you waiting for? It’ll make you a better person, I swear it!

 

Groundhog’s Day is an easy film to break down because it offers several advantages thanks to it’s premise. The time, place and secondary characters remain constant throughout most of the film, so that helps us focus exclusively in Phil Connors and how he transforms through the film in a better human being. Each act in the film is a step Phil Connors makes towards his ultimate self, even if the first steps are completely taken out of selfishness.

Let’s adress acts first….

It took a while for me to understand what consitutes an act, and how many should there be. The three act structure always seemed ambigious when talking about the second act, how do you build up the story so that it leads to the third act?? If a film is usually 90 minutes long, then the second act 40 to 60 minutes long, how the hell is that supposed to work?  Search anywhere for a definition of the second act and what you get is something about a character encountering an obstacle that makes him reach his lowest point. If a film is usually 90 minutes long, then the second act should be40 to 60 minutes long, how the hell is that supposed to work, right? A single obstacle can’t sustain 40 minutes, it has to be more complicated than that! How to know if one act has ended and another has begun, we are not talking about scenes, we are talking about story and character growth!

The best aproach to story structure I’ve seen came from Film Crit Hulk  in which he states the following about act breaks (the things that separate acts):

 “THE END OF AN ACT IS A POINT IN THE STORY WHERE A CHARACTER(S) MAKES A CHOICE AND CAN NO LONGER ‘GO BACK’ … AN ACT BREAK CAN BE ANYTHING AS LONG AS IT HAS A SIGNIFICANT CHANGING EFFECT ON THE NARRATIVE RESULTING IN THE CHARACTER CHOOSING AN ACTION DEFINED BY THAT CHANGE; ONE THAT CAUSES THEM TO MOVE FORWARD IN THIS NEW REALITY WITH UNDERSTANDING … MORE IMPORTANTLY, AN ACT BREAK CREATES PROPULSION.”

So it kinda becomes like that game Meteos right? In which you are launching blocks into the air, but they only go so far and you have to keep propulsing them upward. If nothing happens they fall back to the ground and the fire is gone. You can see this happening when talking about movies with the people around you. “… it gets kinda boring halfway through, but the ending rocked!”

MeteosGif01

Film Crit Hulk elaborates on how many acts are required to tell a story:

“THE AMOUNT OF ACTS MOVIE SHOULD BE DEPENDENT ON STORY WANT TO TELL. EACH ACT SHOULD REACH THIS MOVING FORWARD POINT IN ORGANIC, EARNED WAY. AND TOTAL NUMBER DEPENDENT ON HOW MUCH TRYING ACCOMPLISH WITH STORY. MORE IMPORTANTLY, THEY SHOULD ALL TIE TOGETHER IN COHERENT WAY.  AND THEN, ULTIMATELY, IT SHOULD TRY BE DONE WITH BEST ECONOMY POSSIBLE WITHOUT LOSING ANYTHING CRITICAL OR AFFECTING THE ORGANIC QUALITY.”

So that kicks three act structure on the teeth, now it everything makes sense (if you have time you should head to Film Crit Hulk’s site and read his essay on three act structure)

So! If each act helps to propulse the story forward and at the end of each act the character makes a choice and can no longer come back… and we want to use this to tell the story of a man who starts off being selfish and arrogant and becomes selfless and giving, then what will the acts consist of?

Well, the writers, Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, basically designed the steps Phil Connors had to climb to reach the end of his journey.

Ok… enough theory, let’s talk about the film.

ACT I

Act one presents the characters and what the situation for Phil’s going to be, he’s going to go to Punxsutawney, make his report and come back. He hates it there and thinks he should be in a more important place in his career. He also takes every chance he has to be rude or sarcastic to everyone.

We also also meet Rita and Larry, Phil’s producer and cameraman respecitvely. When Rita is introduced it is clear Phil has the hots for her. At the end of Act I, Rita tells Phil he has reserved for him a room in a different hotel. We are given proof of Rita’s kindness in this scene, something that will come into play later on.

 

So now, all the pieces are set, we have an idea of what the characters are all about, we can move on to the next day. It’s Groundhog’s Day, Phil goes out, meets some of Punxsutawney, does his report and tries to rush back to Pittsburgh, but something happens, there’s a blizzard and he has to stay, he is miserable.

The next day something happens…

ACT II

We have our first Act Break! The story has changed and there is no going back. We are in the loop and Phil Connors is starting to freak out

The day repeats itself and all through this day Phil is nervous, still not willing to accept this is happening, he breaks a pencil and leaves it next to the alarm clock to prove that what’s happening IS REALLY happening.

Next day, to the audience’s amusement, the day repeats itself and it’s full-on nervous breakdown.

The situation pushes Phil to go to a doctor, but neither the doctor or the psychologists have answers to his mysterious predicament, so he decides to go to a bar and drown his problems.

It’s in the bar where Phil comes to a realization, if the day repeats itself then they’re no consequences to his actions. And since this is the moment the story will change they treat us to a sequence of Phil being reckless at the wheel of a car.

This action scene is our act break, its not only serving as a change in the story, it’s also a scene that injects adrenaline into the story, it sparks the viewer’s atention without being gratuitous. It propels!

Phil is put in a cell… and the next day..

ACT III

There’s no consequences to the numerous crimes he perpetuated “last night”, remember that an act break creats a point where the character can’t “go back”, in the case of Phil Connors, he won’t go back to feeling afraid, he embarces what’s happening to him.

And so he goes to living a self-indulging life: He eats whatever he wants, he uses the loop to his advantage to get women into bed, he steals money, buys an expensive car, etc… After probably living like this for a LONG time, it’s clear the self-indulging lifestyle is not that fun anymore, so Phil focuses his efforts on getting Rita into bed.

And thus begins…

ACT IV

Again, a point of no return is created, Phil can’t go back to living like he used to, it’s way to easy now… getting Rita into bed poses a challenge. But the thing that worked with the other woman won’t work with Rita.

This is the part when Phil tries for many, many days to say the exact things Rita wants to hear, he tries to have everything  in common with her..

 

And it almost works, almost. Rita sees past Phil’s act and refuses all his attemps, slapping the crap out of him

Everything Phil Connors does to get Rita’s affection is fake, he is still the same selfish person he was when the film started. The slap montage is this act’s climax, it leaves Phil defeated and therefore…

ACT V

He decides, in his desperation, to kidnap the groundhog as he deluded in thinking the Groundhog is responsible for the loop. But it doesn’t end well…

But thanks to the loop, Phil Connors can’t die. Yet he tries a million ways to take his life permanently

But in the end, as hard as he tries, he can’t die. Notice how jumping off the building serves as this act’s climax,  it’s the most dramatic way the filmmakers found to show somebody taking his life. Visually, the slow motion adds to the intention of the scene. (One thing that has always bugged me, probably thanks to my love for time travel films, is that they show Rita and Larry identifying the body, that mens that that version of the world doesn’t stop everytime Phil Connors dies, it goes on! That means every single day in the loop is a separate reality! So irresponsible, man)

ACT VI

After trying so hard to die, but being unable to, Phil reaches the conclusion that he is a god. Rita doesn’t believe him, of course, but then he proves it to her that he knows everything about everybody in the room.

He also proves to her that he knows exactly what Larry is going to say when he walks in.

Rita decides to believe Phil and spends the rest of the day with him. She tries to convince him that what’s happening to him is not a curse, but something he can turn into a good thing. Phil realizes what a good person Rita is and admits he is a jerk. While Rita sleeps, Phil swears that if he ever becomes deserving of Rita, he will love her for the rest of his life..  isn’t that just the sweetest thing? Awww!

The climax for this particular act is the moment where Phil Connors is the most vulnerable that he has ever being through out the film, and probably his entire life… the next day, something changes…

ACT VII

Phil reaches yet another point of no return, he decides he’s not going to feel sorry for himself and use what has been given to him to do good and become a good person.

He takes piano lessons, he brings coffee and pastries to Rita and Larry, take ice sculpting lessons, he starts cultivating himself.

He messes a bit with Ned Ryerson, though…

He helps a homeless old man, and then takes him to a hospital, but the homeless man dies.

The following days Phil does everything in his power to keep the old man alive

But he realizes that there’s things he can’t control and that he should accept, as the hospital nurse said, that sometimes people just die.

The act break this time is more subtle, I only realized what it meant when I listened actor Stephen Tobolowsky stating that the death of the old man helps teach him that he isn’t a god.

ACT VIII

This act is the resolution of the story, it is Phil Connors finest day, the day he completes his transformation into a selfless and giving human being. He gives a beautiful speech, he saves a kid, he saves the mayor, he helps some ladies with their flat tire, he plays the piano for everybody, he hires Ned Ryerson as his insurance agent, etc…

I really like the fact that the kid doesn’t thank him, it shows that some acts of goodwill go unsung. Also, notice that since Phil Connors is no longer the character that’s making us laugh, the torch passes down to poor Larry with his lame dancing skills and his inability to hit on Nancy.
Throughout the day, Rita finally falls for Phil and they spend the night together

In 2010 in Groundhog Day, actor Stephen Tobolowsky said this about the scene where Phil and Rita sleep together.

He [Bill Murray] said, “I refuse to shoot this scene until I know how I am dressed. Am I wearing the clothes I wore the night before? Am I wearing p.j.’s? Am I not wearing that?” That is, what happened that night between him and Andie [MacDowell]? So, he refused to shoot it. Harold Ramis, the director, had not thought of this question, and he didn’t know. So he took a vote from the cast and crew as to what Bill was wearing. Is he wearing the clothes from the night before, or is he wearing pajamas? And it was a tie, a tie vote, so Bill still refused to shoot the scene.

Then one girl in the movie—it was her first film—she was assistant set director. She raised her hand and said, “He is absolutely wearing the clothes he wore the night before. If he is not wearing the clothes he wore the night before, it will ruin the movie. That’s my vote.” So Harold Ramis said, “Then that’s what we are going to do.” I’ve never told anybody that behind-the-scenes story, so keep that a secret now.

I agree it was the right decision. The character ends up being even more selfless and gentlemanly.

Anyway, his transformation finally breaks the loop and it’s a new day! He is changed!
If I had a superpower, it would be to place Mexican politicians in a Groundhog Day loop… even then, they would change so drastically form one day to another that no one would believe them… tragic..

Phil gets his deserved happy ending and all is right in the world!

So you see, it took Phil 8 acts, or steps, to reach the culmination of his being! Each act is a different phase in his development as a person towards goodness. Defined in three acts you could say that first act ends when the loop begins and the third act begins in that final, perfect day. That would mean that second act was supported by a single conflict or obstacle, but as you can see, that’s not the case at all, between that first day and that last theres a lot going on.

It helps to see that each scene and sequence has it’s own setup, complication and resolution.The structure chosen for this film is a perfect fit for its content and that’s the principle: Content dictates structure.

Hope you guys found use for all this stuff I wrote. For me, it helps to put it down in paper, you end up learning new things.

Glad you could read along,

Sant

 

 

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