Harold Ramis’ theory of love: ‘Groundhog Day' as romance


The Boston Globe

When I learned that Harold Ramis died last week, I reacted they way I’m guessing many others did: By queueing up“Groundhog Day.”

The 1993 movie about almost-eternal life, which Ramis co-wrote and directed, is the deepest light comedy of all time, variously held up as a parable of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Kabbalah, Nietzsche, Camus, the Sisyphus myth, the practice of yoga, the process of recovery.

It’s less celebrated — though it should be — as a theory of love. Because it turns out that Ramis’ true genius was making“Groundhog Day” into a romantic comedy, when it easily could have been something else.

The original“Groundhog Day” screenplay, written by Brookline resident Danny Rubin, had the same slam-dunk concept: Phil Connors, a cynical TV weatherman, finds himself trapped in an endless loop, on Feb. 2, in groundhog-loving Punxsutawney, Pa., Rubin came up with the setting, the basic roster of characters, and the brilliant idea that“I Got You Babe,” played on the clock radio every morning, would be a fitting signifier of hell on Earth.

But Rubin’s script was a much darker comedy, more explicit and overtly philosophical, filled with voice-overs and a running count of the days Phil spent in his time loop. Rita, Phil’s love interest, was coarse and world-weary. And the ending had a clever, but caustic, twist: Phil finally won Rita’s love and awakened to a new day, only to find that Rita was in a time loop of her own, repeating Feb. 3 for all eternity.

In his book How to Write Groundhog Day — a fun little tome about the processes of creativity and Hollywoodization — Rubin reprints the original screenplay and recalls that he got two offers for the script. One was from an indie studio that promised to make the movie as written. The other was from Columbia Pictures; Ramis had a deal with them, and wanted to produce and direct it.

Rubin chose Ramis, accepting the tradeoffs: the director of Caddyshack would have a different vision, but a broader audience. (If Nietzsche had written chick lit, he might have been more popular, too.) And he came to appreciate Ramis’ idea about reframing the story through the arc of a romance.

In both screenplays, Phil goes through various stages of coping with eternal life — he’s bored, despairing, suicidal, hedonistic, gloriously productive, selflessly generous. But in the original screenplay, Phil picks up wisdom from a priest, his mother, a bum on the street. In the final movie, his epiphanies stem from Rita. He fails to woo her by manipulation, then slips into despair. He approaches her with honesty, then gains a sense of hope. He stops wooing altogether, betters himself, and wins her at last — and the curse is finally lifted.

This is actually a pretty profound philosophy of romance — not just about how to get the girl, but about how the girl gets you.

“I could never love someone like you, Phil,” Rita says, after one night of desperate courtship,“because you'll never love anyone but yourself.”

“That’s not true,” Phil replies.“I don’t even like myself.”

In fact, it’s Phil who’s right: It’s only when he learns to like himself, to nurture his talents and make true friends, that he becomes a suitable match. Plenty of movie romances end when the selfish guy appreciates what was before him all along: He gets his act together, improves himself and claims what he finally deserves. (And the woman accepts: “You had me at hello.”)

Groundhog Day posits that love isn’t the reward so much as the byproduct: that wonderful thing that happens when another person makes you better. Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell aren’t a natural match — he all nuance and folds and perfectly timed pauses, she an absolute blank slate. But her guileless, glass-half-full look at the world is what Phil needs to reimagine his life. Why he needs her doesn’t matter. She makes him need himself.

And in the end, we believe it: Phil doesn’t need philosophy or religion, some external belief system or a curse-lifting cure. He just needs the right person, setting him on the right path.

He gets the girl, but more important, he gets the future. Talk about a happy ending.

© 2014 The Boston Globe

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • High drama in Texas governor’s office

    As moments of high political drama go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Indicted Gov. Rick Perry, we’re ready for your close-up.

  • The ones left behind

    The fire this time is about invisibility. Our society expects the police to keep unemployed, poorly educated African-American men out of sight and out of mind. When they suddenly take center stage, illuminated by the flash and flicker of Molotov cocktails, we feign surprise.

  • Whistle blower’s tale with happy ending

    Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique news release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category