'Groundhog Day' and Iterations Toward a Theory of the (Third) Wheel: Or, Larry the Cameraman
No matter what the actor Phil Connors (Bill Murray) does in Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day, it's the cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) who holds the power to make or break him.
Larry the Cameraman (Chris Elliott) plays the proverbial third wheel in the 1993 classic Groundhog Day opposite the leads, weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) and his on-location producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell). Given the conventions of romantic comedy, one might expect Larry to get squeezed out. Third wheels, after all, typically function as a plot device to create an obstacle for the hero in his quest to rendezvous with his "one true love". Either that, or they simply hang around as some other noxious cliché: the gay best friend, the jerky ex, the mean girl, the nice guy, the sidekick, the tag-along, the intellectual schlemiel, or the dopey sibling. Etc., etc.
They're flat characters, merely comic relief or catalysts. Rarely do third wheels show much development in their own right, independent of the machinations necessary to further the love story, which becomes well-nigh all-consuming as the movie rounds the corner into its fifth act. Cue the violins, the montage, the soft focus. Exeunt the third wheel.
Larry, however, grows in importance as the movie progresses, going from after-thought goofball to the film's comedic center. As Murray's character incessantly relives Groundhog Day over and over, eventually realizing some carpe diem shit about using his time wisely to make himself into a well-rounded altruistic human being, Larry devolves in the opposite direction. He becomes a lecherous, dimwitted, overconfident putz.
A chiasmus takes place so that near the end of the movie, it's Phil who plays the straight man to Larry's antics. Paradoxically, it's Larry's narcissistic letch who appears more self-actualized, more fully inhabiting his own creative impulses. Unlike Phil, who knows he can always hit rewind, Larry's hijinks occur because he increasingly embraces brazen risks. He lives, as it were, entirely in the moment, possibly because he's aware that as a secondary character his cinematic moment is fleeting.
Phil's life becomes scripted, all rehearsals and outtakes; Phil is filling in, acting as mere filler, in an existential vacuum. His eternal recurrence affords him the luxury of endless do-overs. His decision to better himself only occurs when he realizes he has nothing better to do. Suicide has been ruled out, near godlike knowledge gets him nowhere, and he's already had his yucks toying with the locals. The only challenge left appears to be finding his way into Rita's pants, and the only way to accomplish that is turning himself into some type of unlikely do-gooder.
Larry, by contrast, keeps acting out. His outbursts grow increasingly boisterous. He's manic, ribald, tormented by some dark inner demon. Whereas Phil must incessantly perform some would-be improving version of himself, Larry's feats are impromptu: they appear razor-edged with the knowledge that he might be erased. He sticks his neck out, even when he's on the chopping block -- or in his case, the bachelor auction block.
Phil is the quintessential actor, the so-called "talent" as he brags to Rita early on; after all, we first see him in front of the blue-screen, on live TV, an awkward shaman manipulating a blizzard and other acts of god. One might assume his role as a weatherman subjects him to a flurry of whims beyond his powers of comprehension; after all, there's a certain foolishness in any prognostication. And yet, the minutiae of his whole existence becomes more and more routine, more and more under control down to the granular level. He succeeds not so much because he arrives at inner enlightenment, but because he perfects his ability to manipulate appearances. No method actor, he. Phil is pure rhetoric and bluster. He knows his cues, has his lines down cold, and delivers them with flawless execution.
He tricks Nancy, the whore to Rita's virgin, convincing her that they're old high school buddies in order to bed her; in this, he takes after the robotic Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky), life insurance salesman, who stalks Phil with his own confidence trick about how they were once high school chums. Although one fan's popular theory has it that Ned is the Devil at the Crossroads, asking Phil to literally sign his life away, for me it's more likely that Ned is Phil's doppelganger, a funhouse-mirror version of Phil's own mechanistic schtick and dogged repetition. Ned relentlessly pushes something that won't matter until one's already dead; Phil dies every day, pushing onward until something matters.
Over the course of Groundhog Day, Murray's hangdog everyman somehow becomes an anodyne charmless prince. Early in the movie he says, "I'm just trying to talk like normal people talk… Isn't this how they talk?" He's the performer imitating life, hyper aware of his imperative to seem natural while knowing that naturalness is just one more contrived pose. It's as if he's trapped on stage, in his own personal The Truman Show or episode of reality TV, chilly and calculated, as frozen in time as the ice-blocks he so meticulously carves.
Larry, of course, is his foil, the cameraman, the cut-up. I imagine that there's something "meta" about Larry's role in the film, even more than writer and director Harold Ramis's cameo as the neurologist. When Larry's at the bar hitting on Nancy, he says, "People think a cameraman just points at stuff and shoots. But there's a lot more to it than that." The bartender rolls his eyes. We know, however, that the scene is mediated by a camera which is also rolling. Wheels are spinning. The earth is turning. The stars are orbiting in their course. The numbers on Phil's alarm clock revolve. And the whole clockwork universe pivots and reels.
No matter what the actor does, the cameraman -- i.e., the cinematographer, director, and editing crew behind the scenes -- hold the power to make or break the actor. The camera's "shooting" is a virile threat. Indeed, Larry has a certain understated glee on viewing one iteration of Phil as a corpse at the morgue, deadpanning to Rita, "He was a really great guy. I liked him a lot." Perhaps I'm too eager to impute something sinister, but my hunch is that Larry's little sneer reveals a secret wish to murder Phil. At least in his fantasy life, in the movie he's making in his head, the cutthroat impulse of Larry is to leave Phil on the cutting room floor and win both girls himself.
Despite the pseudo-moralizing arc of Phil's belated coming of age story, the ultimate value of his transformation must be proven in a capitalist bidding war. Rita pays top dollar for her one night with him, making sure to get her money's worth. She thereby breaks Phil's fateful spell not with a fairy-tale kiss as much as with the potent combination of cash and sex.
Meanwhile, Larry's character finally steps on stage at the bachelor showcase, only to earn a lousy 25 cents from a geriatric biddy. He's in the limelight instead of behind the camera for once. And despite (or because of?) his awkward growls and groin thrusts, he seems a much more likeable character. Bill Murray, our iconic lovable loser, for once trades roles and becomes the leading man, and his po-faced mojo is transferred to Chris Elliott. Balding, pasty, and pushing 40, he's the epitome of the untoward horndog in all of us, the unraveling id to Murray's vanishing ego. Likely nobody will ever accept Larry's invitation to "see the inside of [his] van", not even the geriatric prize-winner of his auction date. Murray is in a comatose state of suspended animation; Elliott's lewd desires elude him, making him ever more giddy and febrile.
Phil's final day is all-too-perfect -- he's choreographed the whole affair. One of the ironies of the film is that Phil seems to learn to care for people even as he recognizes them as automata. In actuality, Phil himself is an automaton, a smooth operator whose practiced schtick gives him the illusion of goodness. In point of fact, he lacks any being-towards-death, any zest, any fraught sense that there are any stakes at all. He's the most blasé that a Bill Murray character could possibly be; he has lifetimes to go and still no hope that much if anything will feel new.
At one point he shows Rita how he can toss cards into his hat, saying that it only took him years to form such habits. He doesn't let the cards fall where they may; no, Phil has orchestrated every last detail with perfect timing, having been given all the time in the world. He's studied how to press other's buttons as gracefully as he's learned to press piano keys. His fanatical rigor can be discerned when we realize that he took up the piano because of a one-off comment made by Rita earlier that she wanted a man who could play a musical instrument. But it's Murray himself who may be the player piano, hitting every note, pulling out all the stops, a Cassanova on auto-pilot.
On the contrary, Larry's comments are often clipped off or cut out of the scene. Yet Larry, too, is in his own way perpetually out of synch, untimely, a victim of fate. But unlike Phil, Larry's raison d'être is spontaneity. His cynicism is born of experience. He's a wise fool, an overflowing fountain of primal urges and vital passion. All heart and gush and gawk and snark.
I've said little up to this point about Andie McDowell's Rita Hanson. In psychoanalytic terms, Rita is the super-ego, the pleasure-denying, normative voice of respectability if not outright repression. She pretends to want to "go with the flow", but in the very next second she confesses she's studied 19th century French poetry. Murray ironically bursts out chortling, "What a waste of time!"
At another point, when Murray asks MacDowell what she wants, she stammers and says, "I guess I want what everybody wants. You know: career, love, marriage, children." That's not what she wants; that's what she's supposed to want. That's her embodying a social script, a gendered role. When Murray presses her for something more genuine, at first she claims she's not ready to share with him, as if her desires were too personal; when she confesses, however, she claims she wants a perfect man with a litany of platitudes -- he's sensitive, courageous, kind, handsome, and willing to change a poopy diaper.
That last bit reveals her wish to cleanse away the stink, to sanitize all mess and bodily muckage. Dominkque Laporte in hisHistory of Shit (1978) (yes, I myself am turning to a little French "poetry" of sorts) asserts that it's the socio-political infrastructure built to manage and obscure fecal matter that reveals a culture's underlying anxieties and psychic structure. If the flow of waste discloses the boundaries of the modern subject, then in Rita's case her subjectivity is closed off, divorced from her body's own output; she is, metaphorically, the 19th-century Haussmannization of crapulent Parisian alleyways.
It would not be too absurd to view the future baby she posits as issuing from her virgo intacta. She's so wholesome, so pristine, holding defecation at arm's length. And yet -- her "splurge" on Phil at the bachelor auction represents her sphincter unclenching. She makes it rain, so to speak, a golden shower -- for gold in Freudian terms symbolizes shit: her money and her body are alike finally let loose.
Thus, what we like about Larry, for those of us who like him, is that he's not so much Phil's inverse as he is Rita's. Larry is the living incarnation of someone beyond the pale, someone whose sexual fetishes probably include watersports, vomiting, and scat. He's a cheap date, and he's ready to put out. He wallows in his own shit, the high-water mark, as Laporte sees it, of civilization.
The movie purposely frustrates our desire to know more about the characters by showing them petrified in their routines. The humor of Phil stepping in the puddle for the nth time, for example, evokes textbook Bergsonian laughter: a human creature made to look like a wind-up toy, a simple mechanism, inevitably repeating its previous mistakes. Only the evolving love triangle of the out-of-town news crew seems possibly exempt from this set-up. But at one point Phil writes down a prediction of what Larry's about to say. He demonstrates that Larry's flailing improvisations are always already in the script. Nobody has free will. So, too, the same might be said of Phil Connor himself. Perhaps in every alternative take, his actions are determined in advance? Perhaps it was equally fated that he would write out what Larry would say.
There's something slightly loopy about Roger Ebert's admission that only on repeated viewings could he truly appreciate the film. The movie's unending afterlife in pop culture -- e.g., as military slang, cinematic trope, political catchphrase, and a soon-to-be Broadway musical -- is evidence of the quixoticism it's capable of producing. Eventually, the film becomes about its own status, its own stasis, as a rerun. It's the film nobody watches because everyone's seen it before.
Every moment may be a snowflake, but their sum total is a blinding whiteness.