by John Constantine
Directing comedy is as delicate as writing it. You need to ease your performers into exactly the right rhythm, get them to react to each other just so. Otherwise your movie won’t be funny. It’ll just be ridiculous. Chemistry and timing are key.
That’s the reason you see so many comedy creators directing, writing and starring in their own work. It means complete control over the act, ensuring maximum hilarity. Harold Ramis has certainly written and/or performed in far more than he's directed, but the former (soon-to-be current!) ghostbuster has nonetheless shouldered plenty of directing gigs. In honor of his latest stint as the helmer of "Year One," I give you five classic chestnuts from his ever-growing catalog.
Ramis’ directorial debut was easier than it was for some artists. He was surrounded by experienced, enormously talented performers -- not to mention his friends -- and he was working from a script that he wrote. It doesn’t change the fact that he knocked "Caddyshack" out of the park. Much like his early writing, Ramis got great energy out of putting scenes of pandemonium on the screen. The caddy pool party and the harbor scene where Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Czervik destroys an entire pier are exercises in pristine comedic excess. Then Ramis one-ups himself, ending his movie by blowing up an entire golf course. It is the definition of an auspicious debut.
"National Lampoon’s Vacation" (1983)
Ramis’ second outing as a director saw him working with someone else’s writing for the first time. That must have put a huge amount of pressure on the man, a weight even more crushing since the movie falls into that trickiest of comedy sub-genres: the road movie. It’s a less confident movie than “Caddyshack”, but a great one nonetheless, and a classic to many. It was Ramis' aloof eye that set the tone for the entire “Vacation” series. When Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) finally gets his family to “Walley World,” Ramis shoots each scene with a warmth that belies the nightmarish(ly funny) cross-country trip that preceded it.
The only remake Harold Ramis has ever worked on, it’s easy to dismiss 2000’s “Bedazzled” as a throw-away. Sure, if you’re going to have Satan in your comedy it’s always better to have infernal Elizabeth Hurley in a tight red dress than the original's Peter Cook. But Frances O’Connor is no Racquel Welch, believe you me. The movie’s cast never totally settles into their roles — especially Brendan Fraser’s character, who is too brawny to be a convincing dupe — but Ramis keeps the movie moving at a good clip. The highlight of the film comes after Elliot Richards (Fraser) asks the Devil to make him rich and powerful. The Devil, in turn, turns him into a Columbian drug lord. You’d never think a violent assault on a drug lord’s compound would be hilarious, but Ramis proves you wrong.
"The Ice Harvest" (2005)
Ramis has only made four movies in the 21st century. This week’s “Year One” is the only completely original film. The others have been remakes, sequels, or as in “The Ice Harvest”’s case, adaptations. That adaptation is also the best of his modern work. “Harvest” is a darker, more cynical comedy than Ramis has typically produced. The heist-gone-awry story of Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thorton) trapped in a snowed-in Kansas town is shot in stark shades of blue and grey, not the vivid color Ramis is known for as a director. The tonal and visual shift shows that even after thirty years in the business, the man is still willing to take creative risks.
"Groundhog Day" (1993)
“Ghostbusters” may be the finest thing Ramis has ever written, but “Groundhog Day” takes top honors as his finest direction. At the beginning, “Groundhog Day” seems like it’ll just be another fantasy comedy. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is trapped in a podunk town, doomed to repeat the same day over and over again. The movie takes a left turn halfway through, though, becoming a melancholic meditation on just what makes for a good life. It is implied that Connors doesn’t spend just a few years repeating the same day, but whole lifetimes. Ramis’ pacing makes that passage of time feel tangible, oppressive, and by the end, liberating. When it came out in 1993, "Groundhog Day" demonstrated Ramis' maturity as a creator and growth as an artist. His greatest work, bar none.