Only God Can Make a Groundhog: On Harold Ramis’ Divine Comedy, Groundhog Day

“You’re not a god, you can take my word for it. This is 12 years of Catholic school talking.”

Groundhog Day

“I’m a god,” TV weatherman Phil Connors tells his producer, Rita Hanson, in a small town diner on February 2, also known by the title of the late director Harold Ramis’ film, Groundhog Day (1993).

Phil has been having a bad day, for a long time – about “30 or 40 years,” Ramis estimates. Phil (played by Bill Murray) tells Rita (played by Andie McDowell) the biography of every person in the diner, even secrets she remembers telling no one. “I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney,” he explains, “and it’s always February 2, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Yet Phil learns, he can do something about it and spends his time in Pennsylvanian Purgatory trying to learn how he can and should live.

It’s February 1, as Phil and his team travel from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival. Though funny, he proves obnoxious and narcissistic. Rita, by contrast, is charming and concerned for others, even Phil.

At 6 am the next day, he wakes to the radio playing Sonny and Cher. We see in his first day a cynicism about the Middle American pageantry by this city slicker. But he cannot leave Punxsutawney because contrary to his prediction on television, a blizzard arrives. Phil complains to the phone operator that whilst lines are down, surely some satellite phone call exists for “celebrities” or “emergencies,” as he is “a celebrity in an emergency.” So he is stuck, stays away from the nightly festivities to wake up hearing Sonny and Cher again.

After seeing a shrink and a neuroscientist, Phil despairs at a bowling alley bar. He bemuses to two drunk fellows, “What would you do if every day was the same, and nothing you did ever mattered?” One answers, “That about sums it up for me.” Phil then drives with them and asks, “What if there were no tomorrow?” The answer, they say, are no consequences for our actions. So when beginning a police chase, Phil decides, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore.”

He uses his daily repetitions to learn about the town and steal from banks, seduce beautiful women, and eat all the bad foods he wants. Eventually, Phil eyes Rita. So he asks what she desires in a great man (and Phil actually believes, Ramis says in the video commentary, he is that man). Day after day, he behaves as if he were that man. No matter the mere appearance he gives, night after night she sees the lie and slaps him. Phil tries to be this ideal, but for the wrong reason: developing character means practicing doing the right things for the right reasons.

Then he begins a period of suicides, as Phil confesses in the diner: “I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned.” And “every time I wake up in the morning without a scratch on me, without a dent in the fender,” waking up to Sonny and Cher. “I am an immortal,” he exaggeratedly proclaims.

Yet while the circumstances remain the same, Phil begins to change. Giving up on suicide, he learns new habits such as speaking French, playing the piano, and reading poetry. When a man asks Phil if he thinks there will be six more weeks of winter, Phil quotes Coleridge: “Winter slumbering in the open air, / Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!” He leaves unquoted the final lines: “Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And Hope without an object cannot live.” Before, Phil had no object for hope with all his efforts, and thus tried to die.

The turning point is that diner scene. Phil shows Rita his predicament, and together they spend the day as friends. She says, “Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.” Before, Phil fell under his own shadow, darkened by his machinations and despair. He alters by beginning new habits to become a fully realized person. His actions change, so his habits change, and thus his character and soul change.

According to the Aristotelian tradition, human flourishing consists in excellent character. Character is not having the right attitude or a good personality, both of which are at most appearances. Moral character, Leon Kass lectures, is “the orientation and disposition of our power of choosing, a power at once appetitive and mindful.” It is our willingness to desire and make actual what is just, noble, and beautiful.

In desiring, intending, and achieving what is good, Eudaimonia or “human flourishing” obtains by practicing the virtues (like justice and courage). Virtues are those capacities for consistently conducting excellent actions with the requisite proportional emotions, reasons, and circumstances. “The power of choice,” Kass continues, “is perfected by habituation in choosing well, by repeated actions that accord with what the practically wise would say and do.”

So Phil spends his days routinely helping the townspeople, like saving a choking mayor, catching a kid falling from a tree, and replacing the flat tire of an old woman’s car. Aristotle notes that the greatness or gravitas of a man consists in his greatly having the virtues. Here we begin to see Phil seek that “greatness” – as Ramis actually calls this section, “The Superman Section,” because Phil heroically aids others. Aristotle writes, “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” These actions become habits, which become virtues, which form our character. Phil practices just, temperate, and brave actions to become so.

An apt metaphor to understand his transition is the Commedia. In the final canto of his Inferno, Dante is on the back of Virgil as they climb down Satan. At the bottom of the devil, Dante writes, Virgil “turned his head round to where his legs had been, / and seized the air as one would who ascends; / hence I thought we were going back to Hell.” Virgil reminds Dante that they are at the Earth’s center. Dante believes he’s descending headfirst further into the Inferno, when in fact he’s leaving it to ascend Mount Purgatorio towards the heavens. The perceived center of hell is the transition point to “again behold the stars,” as Dante ends. The reason for mentioning Dante is that Groundhog Day is an “allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay,” as Michael Foley suggests.

After losing pleasure in all things, failing to win Rita, and countlessly failing to permanently murder himself, Phil’s parallel to Dante exists at the diner when he says he is a deity (supposedly because he cannot die). For example, after his day with Rita, Phil helps an old homeless man he previously ignored. Whatever Phil does, each night the man dies. Ramis insisted on this scene because with death, “Phil confront[s] the reality that he’s not God, that his grandiosity is just a sham, and that you can only do so much in life.”

In the diner scene, Phil first says, “I’m a god.” Rita being skeptical, he further qualifies, “I’m a god. I’m not the God, I don’t think.” After Phil recounts his deaths and proclaims his immortality, the incredulous Rita replies, “You’re not a god, you can take my word for it. This is 12 years of Catholic school talking.” Phil then shows his knowledge about the fellow customers. Then, when asked “Is this some kind of trick,” Phil says, “Well maybe the real God uses tricks, Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”

Interestingly, Phil begins Ramis’ admonition (“the reality that he’s not God”) by admitting he thinks “I’m not the God.” And though he equates “knowing enough” with divinity, he tells Rita (as they walk out) that nothing else explains his knowledge because “I’m not that smart.” He distances himself from the knowledge (actually “omniscience”) of God. That he realizes he is not God marks his change.

Chesterton remarks that “a great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it.” Phil begins becoming great only by first recognizing he is not God, even if merely by correctly conceding that being a god is not being the God. “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope,” Phil broadcasts. “But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearth and hearts, I can’t imagine a better fate than a long and luxurious winter.” He has abandoned his “work without hope” outlook, yet that change in outlook is due to a change more deep, one of character. That change occurs because he has been given an object of hope, Rita.

According to the Christian tradition, character does not save a soul. Salvation comes by accepting and cooperating with grace – the love of God freely given. Rita freely decides to spend that day with Phil despite his terrible character. As they fall asleep waiting for 6 a.m., he quotes the last line from a Joyce Kilmer poem: “Trees.” Phil says, “only God can make a tree.”

This poem begins, “I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree.” The narrator associates a tree with a woman beautiful in physique and soul (“A Tree that looks at God all day, / And lifts her leafy arms to pray”). The narrator ends by admitting a tree must be lovelier than poems about trees because “Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.” Here, a poem can at best greatly represent an object but remains distinct from it. A poem is made by effort, while the “tree” (probably more about a woman) can only be a gift freely given and accepted.

Likewise, Rita cannot be won by effect, but accepted as a mutual gift. Phil, to receive her, must relent from his machinations to recognize her as an object of hope. Dante completed his journey not by his volition (natural virtue has limits), but was finally guided by Beatrice, his parted love and a symbol for Grace. To make it through Purgatory, Dante needs Beatrice. To make it through Groundhog Day, Phil needs Rita, his source of grace.

Phil recognizes Rita is set apart. At the end of his last day, Rita is impressed with his new gravitas. After she wins him in a charity dating auction, Phil carves an ice sculpture of her face. He explains, “I know your face so well, I could have done it with my eyes closed.” Rita, as grace, has won Phil and he, recognizing her as a gift, makes his poem about her. Like Kilmer’s narrator, Phil can represent her but recognizes he is not the one who made her. Phil has a smile for winter: “No matter what happens now or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now because I love you,” he tells Rita.

The next morning Phil wakes to find Rita next to him. But she was not there the morning before. He realizes it is February 3. Though his conversion remains incomplete, it has begun with character and subtler recognition that sculptures are made by fools, but only God can make Rita. And Phil is not the God, he knows.

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