Monday, February 24, 2014

Director Essentials: Harold Ramis

by Patrick Bromley
It is with a heavy heart that we celebrate the filmography of a true legend of comedy, a brilliant filmmaker and one of the best people ever.

I love Harold Ramis. Love, love, love Harold Ramis. When I read this morning that he had died at the age of 69, I was genuinely devastated. I knew that someday Harold Ramis would be gone, but I never considered the possibility that it might be sooner than later.

Ramis is one of the few filmmakers/celebrities that I've ever encountered in real life and wanted to tell just how much he meant to me but couldn't because I knew I couldn't put it into words. From writing Animal House to acting in Stripes, from SCTV to playing Egon Spengler to directing Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Ramis is one of the most important and influential figures in comedy from the '70s, '80s and '90s. From performing at Second City in Chicago to writing jokes at Playboy to working at National Lampoon, Ramis is one of those guys who carved the career path for any and every aspiring comedy nerd. He didn't even need to go on to write and direct a half dozen comedy classics to be a legend, but he did.

What I've always loved about Ramis -- besides how sweet and nice and down to earth he seemed -- is that his films felt like an extension of himself. They were smart and human. They had ambitious concepts but always sought to make us laugh with wonderful character work and human observation. He could write a better gag than almost any of his contemporaries, but didn't rest on that ability. He wanted to show us ourselves. He wanted to leave the world a better, happier place than he found it.

He did exactly that.

1. Caddyshack (1980) Harold Ramis' first movie as a director is the one most rooted in his roots at National Lampoon. It's a comedy of chaos -- a gag-driven joke fest celebrating anarchy (Rodney Dangerfield) over order (Ted Knight). Though I've never loved the movie as much as its biggest fans, I can certainly understand how it achieved classic status. Just the number of funny performances in the film -- from Dangerfield, from Bill Murray, from Chevy Chase and most of all from Ted Knight -- is evidence of just how generous Ramis was with his actors and how important it was for him to create memorable characters in his comedies. It was always about more than just the jokes with Ramis -- even when the jokes involve a floating poo in a pool.
2. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) Yet another early '80s comedy classic from Ramis, this one gives Chevy Chase his best role ever as Clark Griswold, suburban family man dragging his wife and kids across country to go to Wally World, a theme park claiming to be the happiest place on earth. Working from a script by John Hughes, Vacation is good bridge between Ramis' early work and the stuff that would come later -- it balances raunchy, R-rated gags (dead aunt strapped to the roof, pee sandwich) with more character-based human observation. For as dark as the comedy can be in Vacation, this is a film that genuinely loves its characters and wants them to fulfill their dreams, even when those dreams are misguided or seem small. Maybe it's because I grew up watching this one over and over (I can still recite most of it), but this remains one of my favorite R-rated comedies of the early '80s.

3. Groundhog Day (1993) Ramis directed only one movie during the decade between Vacation and his masterpiece -- 1986's Club Paradise. He spent the time writing and acting in Ghostbusters and its sequel, as well as writing scripts for several others movies (including Back to School, further proof that almost every single project Ramis touched in the '80s was a monster hit). He returned to the director's chair for Groundhog Day, a movie about which enough good cannot be said. It's one of the best comedies of the '90s. It's one of the best movies of the '90s. It's one of my favorite films of all time -- a perfect movie that is funny and warm and packed with interested philosophical ideas. It takes what should have been an impossible, one-joke gimmick and turns it into a brilliant, rewarding and always surprising story that transcends its own premise. Much of the credit goes to Bill Murray, who has never been better before or since. Murray and Ramis clashed on set and ultimately had a falling out afterwards, which is too bad. I don't want to consider the possibility that a single bad thing came out of Groundhog Day. It's a perfect movie. Had Ramis never directed anything else, I would still love him forever just for this.
4. Multiplicity (1996) Proof that it's very, very difficult to capture lightning in a bottle twice, Ramis's attempt to repeat the magic of Groundhog Day fell way short of his greatest movie. It's got another high concept -- instead of a guy repeating the same day over and over, it's about a guy who's so busy he decides to clone himself. It's even got Andie McDowell as the romantic leading lady. But whereas Groundhog Day used its premise to explore much bigger themes, Multiplicity always feels tethered by the limitations of its plot. Another problem is that Michael Keaton is not Bill Murray. Keaton is a great, great actor and makes almost anything better (he's good here at creating multiple versions of the same person, even though he goes really broad), but he's incapable of making the transition from asshole to enlightened the way Murray does (to be fair, Murray does it better than anyone ever). While not a total waste of time, Multiplicity mostly feels like a special effects demo reel, designed to impress us with how many Michael Keatons can appear in a shot at the same time.

5. Analyze This (1999) It's easy to overlook just how good a movie Analyze This is because it's the movie that opened the "Robert De Niro: Comic Actor" floodgates (and seems to be the turning point of when he started accepting every role offered him). But the casting of De Niro as a gangster who has to go into therapy was, in 1999, inspired. Ramis was one of the best at creating character-based comedy films, and Analyze This is yet another movie in that tradition; not only does it boast wonderful character work from De Niro and Billy Crystal (in one of his most underrated performances), it also has a murderer's row (literally) of character actors who crush it in supporting roles. Best among them is Joe Viterelli, who turns a role as De Niro's henchman Jelly into something warm and human. The movie was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that The Sopranos started around the same time and boasts the exact same premise, but it deserves its reputation as a New Classic.
6. Bedazzled (2000) This movie gets shit on a lot, and it's easy to see why. A remake of the beloved Peter Cook/Dudley Moore film from 1967, Ramis' version casts no one's favorite oafish goof Brendan Fraser as a sad sack who makes a deal with the devil (Elizabeth Hurley) in order to make a girl like him. Ramis' movie is episodic by design (it's broken up into "sketches" in which Fraser tries out new lives and personalities, always with disastrous results) and has two very broad performances at its center, but it's actually a lot of fun and, like a lot of Ramis' best movies, ultimately gentle and sweet. One of the more underrated entries in Ramis' filmography that perhaps will begin to be reassessed with the news of his passing.

7. The Ice Harvest (2005) After a rough patch that lasted a few years (one that included Bedazzled and the misbegotten sequel Analyze That), Ramis bounced back by reinventing himself with this adaptation of Scott Phillips' novel of the same name. What's amazing about The Ice Harvest, one of the very best black comedies of the last 25 years (and a movie I watch every Christmas), is that it actively works against so many of Ramis' strengths as a filmmaker. The sweetness and humanity is bled out of it (though it's still there, mostly in the wonderful Oliver Platt performance), and in its place is a brilliant noir that's willing to be really, unrelentingly nasty. In many ways, it's a perfect companion to Groundhog Day in the way that both films confront a kind of existential crisis, though the two movie take opposing approaches to the subject matter. The film suggests that Ramis was capable of doing something very different -- that his career could have had a third act that totally zagged from what came before it. Ramis was a talented enough filmmaker to pull it off. He was the best.

This column was formerly known as F Directors!. It's a name I've wanted to change for a long time. This seemed like the right time to do it.


  1. It's too bad today's news had to inspire this column, but what a wonderful tribute to a guy who seemed both towering and grounded. I didn't grow up with all of his '80s movies, but between SCTV reruns, Groundhog Day, and Ghostbusters it was impossible to escape Ramis' influence. Whether I knew it or not, he shaped what I thought was funny and offered another, more awesome, path around the so-called "cool" of '80s culture. His movies played to broad audiences, while being at heart subversive and self-aware. I was shocked by the news this morning. I'm sad. But I'm glad Ramis died surrounded by family, and glad that his cinematic children will live on forever.

  2. Great piece, nice tribute to the man. I know I will be revisiting a few of these this week.

  3. I'm gutted. He was a giant. With an even bigger heart.

    Obviously your list is great. I hope The Ice Harvest gets the love it deserves. And Bedazzled ("broad" is a good word for it) has always hugely amused me, which I think was all he wanted. Brendan Fraser crying at a sunset damn near made me soil myself.

    You did good, Patrick. Thanks.

    You were very, very special, Mr. Ramis. I won't ever forget the thousands of smiles you put on my face or the laughs. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and may you rest in peace.

  4. Bedazzeled and Ground Hog day, to movies that thoroughly deserve Fing, RIP, one of my four movie dads

  5. Great article as always, PB!

    I also have a very large soft spot for Bedazzled, what with its great use of San Francisco, Hurley's awesome vamping, the fact that one of the bullies is Toby Huss from Carnivàle, and... well, Fraser's my favorite oafish goof. And I agree it could make for a strong podcast; for a sketch movie, I think it hold together very well.

    1. Thanks, EG. I saw Bedazzled opening weekend and felt indifferent toward it. Then Erika and I revisited it on DVD when it came out and found ourselves laughing through a lot of it. I even thought the deleted scenes (one in particular -- another fantasy in which Brendan Fraser is a rock star) were funny and showed just how much he threw himself into all the different roles. Maybe that's the one I'll watch tonight.

  6. I didn't know he died until I saw this column upon arriving home from work and discovering that once again Patrick Bromley has been the harbinger of sad news. This is SO SAD, but this is a fitting tribute to someone we all loved a whole bunch. Nice tribute and great name change, sir.

  7. I completely lack the articulation to express how much I love Harold Ramis. I always thought of him as underrated - reading this column made me feel better knowing there are other people who understand what a genius he was.

    I would absolutely love to know what happened between him and Murray on Groundhog Day. Not out of a desire to dish dirt, but I respect both men so much and would love to know what they clashed over and what they wanted to do differently.

  8. Great tribute Patrick - I'm about to honour him by watching National Lampoon's Vacation which has been sitting unwatched in my collection for awhile - sad news, but I think it's awesome and so fitting that thousands, and maybe even millions, of people are now mourning Harold Ramis by having a laugh with one of his many great performances/creations. Cheers to a life well-lived!

  9. Groundhog Day - one of my 2 favorite movies of all time (the other is A Muppet's Christmas Carol, which I'm...really not ashamed of, and if you think about it it has the same moral).

    I can't say enough about how BRILLIANT the Groundhog Day story is. Yes it's totally a one joke-gimmick to start with but I love love Harold Ramis for knowing what it takes to make an outstanding human being (like you can't be a good person just for someone else, you can't play God even if you have great intentions). It takes so much wisdom to make a story like this, akin to Dicken's mystical Christmas Carol. And Bill Murray transforms from just a normal jerk to THE MAN of my dreams. I want to be like this person, I want to be with and be like this character. Thank you, Harold Ramis, for showing me the way it can be.