Today is Groundhog Day, which means it’s time to rewatch Groundhog Day, the deceptively philosophical 1993 screwball comedy directed by Harold Ramis (RIP). It stars Bill Murray as Phil, a dickball curmudgeonly weatherman who must relive the same day on loop until he gets it “right,” which means becoming a good decent person, the sort who would be good enough to get to have sex with someone like Rita (Andie MacDowell), a high-maintenance dullard who unironically toasts to world peace. Will they ever get together and find true happiness? Not if he doesn’t completely make himself over in her image first!
Phil’s character, who’s played so brilliantly by Murray that you like him anyway, deftly recreates a real-life nightmare type of person you might actually know: the shapeshifter. The shapeshifter has no definable core interests, so instead he/she likes everything you do, and as a result, you have no idea what they are really like. You might not figure it out until you realize he can’t discuss any of the stuff he pretended to like, but eventually you realize that his core attributes are vague and indefinable, but most importantly, protean in their ability to cater to you. He is, if nothing else, a quick study, and that’s what makes him so disingenuously dangerous.
A shapeshifter can absolutely be any gender, but we are so used to women in pop culture depictions fashioning themselves into exactly the gal he wants that seeing the trope reversed here is not just novel, but also strangely sinister. It’s Rita who is a well-defined, self-actualized person looking for love, and Phil is the lost, cynical shell of a person who’s never experienced real joy. While it mirrors a bit of the manic pixie dream girl conceit of a whimsical woman with great taste in music who turns a beige man into technicolor by teaching him how to Live, here Rita has no interest in rehabbing Phil whatsoever. She thinks he’s a jerk, because he is a jerk.
At first he just doesn’t care about being a good person, he just wants to get Rita in the sack, so to do so, he uses his jail sentence to fake an interest in everything she likes. In this sense, he’s lucky: Phil just happens to have the kind of time on his hands to become the man she always dreamed of. He’s only got 24 hours to make her love him, but he can repeat that 24 hours forever. He’ll remember everything he’s learned, but she won’t, giving the film both a sense of urgency and a sense of plodding eternity at once.
Still, he has to get the scoop on her to get her to give it up, and fast: “What do you want, what do you like, what do you think about?” he asks in one scene. “What kind of men are you interested in? What do you do for fun?”
“What are you looking for?” he pesters. “Who is your perfect guy?”
Eventually he learns that she loves piano, French poetry, and romance, so he learns to play piano, read French poetry, and carve things in ice. He stumbles through it at first: on one date he scoffs at the mere idea of anyone stupid enough to study 19th Century French poetry in college. On the next date, he can quote it to her.
While it plays as comedic in the film, and it is, it’s also disturbing. Faking an interest in subjects or life goals that would normally repulse you all to get someone to like you is completely fucking nuts, full stop. In one scene, this extreme try-hard-ism plays out to creepy effect. Phil clumsily attempts to pile on everything she likes into about 8 hours: the ice sculpture, French poetry, and even Rocky Road, her favorite ice cream. Then he goes in for le poon and won’t let up:
After resisting him a half dozen times, she finally explodes. “This whole day has been one long setup,” she complains. “And I ate fudge. Yuck.”
“No white chocolate,” he replies, updating his mental list of data points. “No fudge.”
Obviously, if this happened on a real date, most reasonable people would be out the door faster than you could mispronounce Baudelaire. But here, it’s played as the sweetly misguided misstep of a jerk who is really, really trying in spite of the fact that he has a secret dossier on her every random preference under the bed and no discernible taste of his own.
Worth noting: the time frame spans 38 repeated days in the film, but viewers have long wondered how many days you’d really need to actually learn these skills. Ramis once said it was supposed to represent 10 years time, but that the movie originally meant for this to span 10,000 years — a brutally epic learning curve. Other sites have since crunched numbers on this to determine that it would really be about 8 years, 8 months, and 16 days of time passing for Phil to get up to speed on this stuff. In another calculation, it would take over 30 years, and this argument posits that you’d need at least 4,380 days to learn French. Ice sculpture: 3,833 days. Piano? Ditto.
I actually love this film in spite of the above, but as a teenager and even a twentysomething, I found Phil’s willingness to fake it til he made it sweetly romantic. While I still think it’s a brilliant shorthand illustrating the ultimate point of life — to get better, to evolve, to find true meaning — and have written as much — his phony courtship now reads as deeply cynical to me, as does the ego on Rita’s part to equate love with someone literally mirroring your every like.
In real life, a shapeshifter deserves another shapeshifter: anyone who wants to be fluffed that much in love deserves the sort of person who could work as a professional fluffer. And to be fair, Phil works on other aspects of self-improvement that still resonate, like taking time to actually get to know the townspeople and even trying to prevent a homeless man’s death. But something about this aspect of the film no longer sits right — if it were the clumsy affectations of a teenager, it’d be one thing. But these are highly educated, grown adults with expensive wool coats. It’s one thing to welcome another person’s interests into your life, quite another to mold yourself overnight into their perfect person, feigning a pickup-artist level interest in all their favorite things so they think you’re their soulmate, then relentlessly wearing them down until they give in. And only then do you find real love? Swipe left.
Still, we want Phil to get it right in Groundhog Day, because he’s a selfish jerk who could stand to take on literally any interest outside himself. And eventually he does. By the end — spoiler — he’s somehow managed to “learn her” right, and as a result — boom — the redemptive power of love (and sex) awaits.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that the real redemptive power of love is not through CliffsNotes-ing someone to fool them — that jig is always up eventually. It’s having to actually, honest-to-God, organically, really put the time in to get to know someone. To remain yourself while allowing someone to change and expand that sense of self not so it mirrors them, but so it complements them. To be an actual person first with something to offer and some room to grow. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut for this, whether you’ve got 10 years or 10,000.