It’s appropriate that Harold Ramis played the straight-faced, data-crunching member of the Ghostbusters, because he had all the big ideas. While he was best known as the nice guy from the same Second City class as John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray and Ivan Reitman -- one that defined American movie comedy post-1980 both behind and in front of the camera -- Ramis was a serious filmmaker. The news of his death today stings because Ramis meant more to his fans than any of us fully realized. A smuggler of deep thoughts into universally beloved commercial art, Ramis was an ordinary guy with a lot on his mind and an extraordinary way of sharing it.
Not for nothing did “Groundhog Day,” Ramis’ magnum opus, merit a volume in the “BFI Modern Classics” series. Ryan Gilbey’s 2005 tome explores the depth of feeling and insight radiating from this seminal Murray vehicle, which in its blend of melancholy and good-natured humor is more distinctly Bill Murray-like than its star. A similar description applies to “The Ice Harvest,” Ramis’ introspective 2005 noir, where a frumpy John Cusack winds up trapped in Wichita for a dangerous night in the same town where he committed a crime. Cusack’s corrupt lawyer is not unlike Murray’s initially mean-spirited weatherman in “Groundhog Day:” Both men are trapped by forces beyond their control to confront their flaws, struggling to live another day in a surreal battle that’s a hilariously absurd and sad encapsulation of the human condition at once. No great surprise that Ramis was a Zen Buddhist.
Of course, the Ramis oeuvre had its goofy side as well. But even more than his most prominent partner-in-crime, Ivan Reitman, Ramis excelled at finding truth, depth and amicability in silliness. “Caddyshack” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” savaged the settings of distinctly American pastimes — golf and theme parks, respectively — while embracing the ebullient personalities they attract. No matter how low the humor sank, Ramis ensured a commitment to reality of his characters’ behavior in the context of outlandish situations. His cloning comedy “Multiplicity” began with a silly premise and blossomed into a genuine critique of traditional family values. Even “Year One” had its perceptive moments lurking beneath the sophomoric surface, resulting in a vulgar spoof of creation myths that celebrated their longevity at the same time. Even when the movies failed, Ramis remained one of the great mainstream comedy directors in the medium's history.
Ramis’ directorial authenticity was complemented by his screen presence. While he lacked Bill Murray’s beguiling inscrutability, he radiated a warm attitude that made him the accessible opposite. Though the particulars of their falling out have grown foggy with time, in retrospect it's clear that Murray and Ramis were incompatible: While Murray’s offbeat gaze was a cryptic joke unto itself, Ramis always seemed like the guy from whom you could expect some gentle humor and friendliness in a breezy conversation, and instead find a richly satisfying amount of philosophical inquiry lurking beneath the welcoming smile.
I experienced this firsthand in 2007, when I emailed Ramis’ Chicago office about setting up an interview for a piece about Ivan Reitman. Ramis responded quickly and set aside time for a 10-minute call; instead, we spoke for close to an hour about the role of Jewish identity in modern American humor, and the dialogue continued in an ensuing email back-and-forth. “Jewish sensibilities now come unlabeled into the marketplace of ideas,” he told me. “If I had to define three different schools of Jewish comedy, I’d say that Woody Allen represents Jewish angst, Mel Brooks represents Jewish droll irony and [our films] represent Jewish heroism.”
Indeed, from “Stripes” to “Ghostbusters” and beyond, Ramis’ work represents the plight of klutz standing up for himself — not a religious conceit, but one with hidden spiritual connotations about resilience in any number of situations. There was a certain charming comedic value in his subdued presence. He made us laugh without clowning around. All of his work requires a second look to recognize its full potential. An admirer of surrealist traditions, Ramis’ email address included a reference to modernist artist Man Ray, whose epiphanies about art’s liberating energies could easily apply to Ramis’ output.
In his public life, Ramis put a humble face forward: Accepting a Screenwriting Award at the Nantucket Film Festival, he joked that he owed all his successes to standing next to the right people. But Ramis’ work suggests a canny manipulation of Hollywood cinema’s consumer-facing abilities in order to get serious. His cameo as Seth Rogen’s upbeat dad in “Knocked Up” suggested a passing of the torch from one comedy generation to the next, as well as a word from the wise: Don’t screw this up. Ramis was an approachable presence for the duration of his career, but his commerciality never came at the expense of his sagacity. He was a comically profound man for all seasons.