Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ease of Harold Ramis

Many of you come here for contrarian opinions, so, amid all the lauds for recently deceased writer/director Harold Ramis, I hope you'll tolerate a contrary view of this hero of mine.

Ramis didn't have a sensational career (writing and/or directing Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Analyze This, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs, etc.) because he was a genius - even though he was a genius. He had a sensational career because he was a company man. A drudge. A guy more about getting stuff made and put out there than investing the sort of care and love that elevates good work to greatness.

Ramis ground the sausage, as they say, stamping out film after film, many successful, some not. Because he was a genius, a number of these films were highly enjoyable in spite of his disdain for extra-measure craftsmanship. A Harold Ramis mediocrity could still kick the crap out of many people's best work. When you're that smart and talented, quality comes easily.

It came so easily that he never seemed to go the extra mile. Ramis' genius stooped to conquer, opting for a low friction/high reward approach. Despite his success (essentially setting the bar for modern cinematic comedy) and his work's intermittent brilliance, Harold Ramis may have been the most disappointing creative figure in my lifetime.

I hesitate to write all this, because everyone agrees that Ramis was an extraordinarily nice guy. And I'm not surprised. There's an ease in taking the easy route - to choosing buttery glide over creative agony - and it's unsurprising that someone who'd made that choice would, himself, personify ease. People who sweat blood to elevate goodness to greatness tend to be more difficult to get along with. What's more, if he'd pushed harder and settled less, he'd never have had the career he had. So I'm not saying he necessarily chose the wrong path. 

But what disappoints me about Ramis - what fuels this inexplicable rebuke of a much-loved guy who made me laugh for decades, who treated people right, and who "earned his keep on this planet", to quote Bill Murray's tribute to him this week - is his film "Groundhog Day", which was a honed masterpiece. Groundhog Day is my favorite film, and I find it very difficult to forgive Ramis for blithely allowing himself to fall so very far short of that mark before and since.

Here are previous Slog postings referencing Groundhog Day. Also, don't miss Stephen Tobolowsky's superb podcast on the making of Groundhog Day (he appeared as Ned Ryerson, the annoying insurance salesman)...and Radio Open Source's two radio tributes to Groundhog Day, from 2006 and from 2007...and Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin's insightful web site.

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