In the second installment of Movies that Made You a Man, Chris Lambert recalls the “Day” that made a life.
I was too young to really understand “Groundhog Day” the first time I saw it. It hit theaters in 1993, which meant by the time I’d see “Groundhog Day” on a TV…we’re probably talking 1994. I’d have been seven.
Most of the dialogue went right over my head. Sweet vermouth, on the rocks, with a twist? Why doesn’t Phil like Punxsutawney? Life insurance? Whole-life? Term-life? Uniflex? Why wouldn’t that girl want to see the inside of the news van?
But the characters’ actions? Those hit me square in the face.
So at the age of seven, I understood: if I’m selfish and don’t care about other people then they won’t care about me. If I help others, I form friendships, and people will want to love me.
As far as I could tell, I now knew the secret to becoming popular.
Imagine my disappointment when I tried to be nice to people and some, instead of wanting to be my friend, weren’t nice back. I wasn’t unpopular. I just…didn’t get why everyone didn’t love me. (I understand now how ridiculous that sounds, but it’s true).
I had yet to grasp the economics of interaction.
I’d re-watch “Groundhog Day” whenever it was on TV, and learn. It’s how I got my first girlfriend. We had the same 4th grade teacher. I went nearly the entire school year without speaking to her. But I was friends with her friends. I knew that much from watching “Groundhog Day”. Impress those around her. Then I found out the Spice Girls were playing a concert nearby. She loved the Spice Girls. If I went, that would impress her. So I made my mom take me. She was impressed. And we became boyfriend and girlfriend.
I was mimicking Phil Connors’ success, but I didn’t know why the actions worked.
When DVDs hit, the first one I bought/made my parents buy me was “Groundhog Day”. And the 1986 animated Transformers movie.
Finally, I could watch whenever I wanted. So, ever since I was 15 or 16, I’ve seen Bill Murray go from cynical asshole to altruistic Zen master at least twice a year. I find the movie so comforting there are days where I put in the Blu-ray and play the film over and over again as background noise. For a long time, though, I had an ulterior motive. I was convinced “Groundhog Day” held the secret to living a good life. If I watched it enough times, I could crack the code for being happy.
Now, I think I was right.
What “Groundhog Day” taught me were two concepts I believe our lives depend on, whether we know it or not.
The first: the aforementioned economics of interaction.
The second: an equation: time + effort = quality of output.
For example, three elderly women in a car get a flat tire. Phil changes it. Yes, that’s a nice thing to do. But Phil is also stepping in at the point where he earns the most respect and thanks. Imagine the good will he earns by changing the tire, without them asking? What if he had only offered to call a tow truck? What if he had just said, “Oh, that’s a bummer. I wish you the best of luck!” Maybe the women would have said, “Oh, he was nice.” But would they feel gratitude? Would they respect him? In a clinical way, I understood: look for high-leverage moments.
Phil gives a “Groundhog Day” speech how many times in this movie? The first one isn’t anything special, right? And the next day Phil sounds confused because he’s doing the same thing over again and doesn’t understand what’s going on. He gives another while depressed and having already killed himself numerous times—you can imagine the joyous delivery. Eventually, after Phil finds new verve for life, once he’s started improving himself, by reading more, by learning other languages, learning to ice sculpt, to play piano etc., Phil gives his final Groundhog Day speech. It’s beautiful. After the speech, the cameraman, who Phil had always been an asshole to, says, “You touched me.” Rita, who Phil loves but always fails to woo, asks him if he wants to get a cup of coffee. Total turnaround. So, I understood: knowledge and skill impress people. More than that, the drive to improve impresses.
That’s reinforced when Phil’s on stage playing the piano and Rita walks in and watches him jam away. The look on her face. She can’t believe he’s so talented. She respects him. That’s how I learned: a woman doesn’t love a man she doesn’t respect. No matter how nice that man is.
Prior to that final piano performance, we see Phil in a diner, reading a stack of books. The radio is playing Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody On A Theme By Paganini”. Phil goes to a piano instructor and sits down and can’t play but tries. The teacher winces. We then see Phil return a few times, improving each time. By the performance at the Groundhog Day party, Phil’s a piano master. Persistence is time + effort. And when you persist, you gain skills. And skill is nothing more than understanding.
I understood, then, how to achieve my dreams.
Maybe Phil isn’t the manliest of men. He isn’t the best fighter. He isn’t the most eloquent man. Or the most anguished. Or the suave-est. He isn’t even the most realistic. He needed tens of thousands of days to learn every skill he gained. But, to me, he is the most important man.
He taught me we aren’t stuck. Our abilities, our opinions, our perspectives, our relationships: all of these things are malleable. They transform where and who we are. Beyond that, men don’t have to earn respect through aggression or bloodshed or bravado or caring less than anyone else. We can earn respect in positive ways.
After spending 19 years out of my 26 analyzing the profundities of this movie, it’s funny that my ultimate realization is a simple one, reminiscent to the first epiphany I had in front of the TV: I can make someone’s day worse or better. And that decision, that one action on one day, can change the world.
Phil is the actualized individual. A realized man. Studying him throughout my life has gotten me closer to becoming one too. My dad passed when I was 20. My mom at 25. I knew I could react in a way that made my friends and remaining family feel worse, or I could react in a way that inspired them. I’m happy with where I am in life, with how I’m living my life. And that’s because I’m following Phil. I know when I’m a husband, when I have kids, I can be someone they love and respect. I know I can be someone my kids want to follow.
Without “Groundhog Day”, I don’t know who I’d be.
Photo: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection