Monday, March 24, 2014

Groundhog Day's odd structure/regular structure

Groundhog Day is a great movie that connects very easily with a universal fear/hope: being trapped vs. getting a do-over. (Check out how many of the secondary characters feel trapped and have some regrets from the past.)

But it isn't exactly a normal movie in many ways. As this article on points out, Groundhog Day makes a lot of odd choices, from hinting at some really dark events (Phil freezes to death?) to completely avoiding the usual guide/rule-setting of this sort of supernatural/spiritual fantasy. (No Three Ghosts of Christmas, no even setting the rules as in Switch or Defending Your Life.)

What's curious to me is how the movie doesn't really set up a standard three act structure. Here's what we'd expect from a three-act Groundhog Day:

  • Phil gets himself into trouble, perhaps by getting an opportunity;
  • Phil gets himself into deeper trouble, reaching the lowest point, the darkest moment;
  • Phil finds the strength/makes the sacrifice/gets a chance to remake some decision he made at the beginning, only now he makes the right decision.

(That last one is particularly funny: so many films have some parallel between the opening mistake of the character and how he reforms at the end. But Groundhog Day is nothing but parallels and repetitions.)

Or we could put this in David Mamet terms:

  • Once upon a time... there was a real jerk named Phil Connors who... well, what?
    • was a jerk... or
    • was a jerk and started to relive the same day over and over, which gave him the opportunity to be his truest jerk self.
  • Then one day... well, what?
    • either he starts to repeat the same day or
    • having gotten the opportunity to repeat the same day and live without consequences, he realizes that there's something shallow about this all, and so he sets his goals on the previously rejected and unattainable Rita (Andie MacDowell), but she continues to reject him.
  • But there was one thing they all forgot... which is that either
    • Phil could still reform for Rita, or (more likely)
    • Phil could reform for himself.
So there really is a classic story here: jerk discovers his own heart of gold. Or, as one reviewer put it, schmuck repeats the same day until he gets it right.

And when you lay it out like that, we can see a pretty clear three-act structure:

  • Phil is a jerk
  • Phil gets interested in Rita
  • Phil becomes a good person and so becomes interesting to Rita

But then, if you try to fill it in with many of the traditional markers of act structure, you'll hit something of a wall: Act 1 ends (in many structures) when the character is committed to the adventure--but when is Phil committed? When he can't leave Punxsutawney? When he starts to repeat the day? When he starts to enjoy re-living the day? I definitely think we should look at that last option as the most significant of his stuck points--but it's worth noticing how he has a few points-of-no-return that lead him to that.

Similarly, Act 2 ends (usually) at the lowest point in the protagonist's story. So where's the low point for Phil?  Well, being stuck in Punxsutawney is pretty bad; being stuck in one day is pretty bad; trying to make a chance by killing yourself over and over is pretty bad; realizing that the person you like (sorta) doesn't--won't--can't--like you back is probably the worst part...

But again, we see how the worst part of Phil's story (for Phil) is preceded by a whole slew of bad events.

And thus we can also see how in Act 3, when he finally reforms and convinces Rita to love him, his good end is preceded by a bunch of tiny good moments: saving people, trying to save people, giving the little people the time and space to be themselves, etc.

So there is a regular three-act structure, but all of those acts consist of some repetitive action or feeling--which is one of those observations that should lead to forehead-slapping. Well, of course Groundhog Day is repetitive... except for where it switches around those act breaks.


  1. Check out All You Need Is Kill if you'd like an interesting take on the "repeat until something is different" idea. It's an interpretation of the trope as seen through the lens of military fiction.

    1. I've been meaning to check that out. Such a great title.