Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies, and I’m trying to establish it as a personal February tradition. Obnoxiously cocky weatherman Phil Connors gets stuck in a time loop that repeats Feb. 2 over and over — perhaps for thousands of years, alternative time. He eventually becomes a good person, wins the love of his producer, Rita, and breaks out of the holding pattern.
This year, I wanted to think about the role love plays in this movie.
My first, standard thought was, “This movie is about Phil’s journey to learning to love, and be lovable.” Sounds good, right? But then, inspired by Elizabeth’s post, I decided to meditate in some hot water. The question came to me, “What did Phil do to make himself lovable?”
“Maybe it’s all about self-esteem?” The thought floated through my head like a bubble on the surface of the bath. “Bingo! Of course it is!” Just like Whitney Houston sings, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, right?
Note to self: deep thoughts that can be condensed into pop lyrics are a little suspicious.
Because, thinking back, Phil actually did love himself – almost to the exclusion of every other kind of love. He was a good weatherman and TV personality, and he knew it, and he was validated by others who didn’t love him, per se, but recognized that he was good at what he did.
Ah, there we go. He may have loved himself, but he didn’t love others. And others didn’t love him.
So what exactly did he need to do to be able to love? And what did he need to do to become lovable?
We don’t love him in the beginning. I think what carries us through is that he’s always in conflict with people. We want to see what happens next.
Then, on his first day of repeating the rest of his life, schadenfreude kicks in. We are a little happy to see him so bewildered. And then we start to feel sorry for him.
He goes through a period where he fakes love. He tricks people into loving him, and he goes to great length to fake being someone worthy of love. The triumphs are either fleeting and unworthy (after he seduces Nancy, we don’t see him seduce her again, for example), or the person (usually Rita) realizes that he’s a fake.
He falls in love with Rita for real, but he can’t get her to have sex with him – that’s his scorecard, the way he knows he’s won. When he finally realizes this, he goes into a deep depression, that leads to multiple suicide attempts. Before, he built facades. Now he destroys himself to the ground.
And finally, he hits rock bottom and decides to be completely honest with Rita about what’s going on with him. She falls asleep in his arms, and he begins to realize that he’s got to be a real good person, not a fake good person.
Along the way, as he tricks people, he talks to them and connects with them in a way he’s never done before. He begins to realize that they are worthy of love, too. So, in his search to be a worthy man, he also begins to do good for the little town he’s stuck in. He makes the good choices, and connects with people out of concern for them, instead of concern for himself.
He eventually builds himself into a multi-talented artist, and creates a daily schedule where he is going from one good deed to another. he cares about these people, and they care about him. And at the end of one perfect day, he wakes up and it is tomorrow. He is a new man, a different man from the man he was on February 1, thousands of years ago.
The takeaway for me? You can have an unlovable character at the beginning. Don’t make it last too long, make sure the character is funny and not too evil, and make sure s/he is doing stuff, having conflicts until you can get to the point where the audience can either laugh at or empathize with the character. And make sure you don’t spend too much time wallowing in the non-growth part.
Oh, and make sure the character does grow into someone lovable and loving.
Because everything worthy in the world comes back to love in the end. Romance writers know this.