How Harold Ramis blazed a trail for surreal cinema

The late, great Groundhog Day director paved the way for filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman

Harold Ramis with Bull Murray
Harold Ramis with Bull Murray

In 1984, Ghostbusters became a cultural phenomenon. As well as being one of the highest grossing movies of the 80s, the film spawned a diverse range of merchandise (from video games to ice cube trays to toothpaste), a number one single, an animated TV series and a successful sequel. But how did it do it? What was it that made a comedy about ghost hunters such a hit with audiences? There were a number of reasons: the many memorable characters, the quotable dialogue, the entertaining storyline; but they all come back to one thing: the screenplay, written by Saturday Night Live star Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the writer-director of Caddyshack and National Lampoon's Vacation who died on Monday. 

With both Aykroyd and Ramis coming from a comedy background, and with SNL graduate Bill Murray rounding out the cast alongside the two writers, Ghostbusters was always going to be funny. The three comedians played the film's heroes, saving New York from ghosts, monsters and giant marshmallow men, but instead of taking the Raiders of the Lost Ark approach to heroism they twisted the clichés and conventions of the action genre and played them for laughs: Murray's scientist, Peter Venkman, was a sarcastic and self obsessed ladies man; Aykroyd's Ray Stantz was an enthusiastic and excitable man-child, and Ramis's Egon Spengler was an awkward and serious collector of "spores, moulds and fungus". Not exactly Indiana Jones.

But it worked, and this was down to the writing. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert called Ghostbusters: "an exception to the rule that big special effects can wreck a comedy", and he was right, because the visual effects were always secondary to the screenplay and the characters. This may have been down to necessity, with computer technology still in its infancy in 1984, but, even since then, it's the characters in Harold Ramis's works that draw the most attention, and this is where he comes into his own as a writer.

Having started his comedy career as a member of improvisational comedy group The Second City in Chicago and Jokes Editor for Playboy, Ramis eventually began working on the popular comedy radio show National Lampoon's Happy Hour in New York, which featured such pre-fame comedic talents as John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radnor and Bill Murray. After co-writing the first of the National Lampoon spin-off movies (Animal House, in 1978) and turning down a job as a writer for SNL, Ramis went on to write and direct golf comedy Caddyshack (1980), the John Hughes penned road trip farce National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) and Caribbean caper Club Paradise (1986), as well as co-writing Ghostbusters and its sequel, before eventually working on Groundhog Day (1993), his most celebrated film.

Starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, Groundhog Day is about an arrogant, selfish local TV weatherman sent to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in a small town outside Pittsburgh, only to find he is stuck in some kind of time loop that forces his to repeat the same day over and over again, in a seemingly unending cycle. Much like GhostbustersGroundhog Day is a high concept idea built around its characters, and as much as it might sound like science-fiction, it's really something totally different. Ramis uses the time-loop mechanic as a way to show the growth of a character. Murray's weatherman initially uses the "no consequences" aspect of his situation to commit crimes and seduce women, before eventually tiring of this, losing his cynicism towards the world and embracing the joy of life. 

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Groundhog Day paved the way for more mindbending movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Groundhog Day is a complex, surreal and philosophical movie masquerading as an A-list Hollywood rom-com, which is not an easy thing to pull off - but it is easy to see why the film has so many admirers. In the most recent Sight & Sound poll, in which critics and filmmakers choose the ten best films ever made, Groundhog Day received votes from American Hustle director David O'Russell and Monty Python's Terry Jones, and the film has had a profound impact on the work of Charlie Kaufman - whose screenplay for Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has many similarities to Ramis's film - as well as on Duncan Jones's Source Code and Richard Linklater's Waking Life.

Kaufman is a screenwriter celebrated for his bold manipulation of cinematic structure to examine philosophical questions in an emotional, surreal and light way. This is a style more suited to the films of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker than contemporary Hollywood, and Kaufman wouldn't have been able to pitch a film like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with big name stars like Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, if Harold Ramis hadn't already done it with Groundhog Day. Ramis made surrealism accessible to a mass audience, and paved the way for imaginative, boundary pushing filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman in the process.

So what happened? Why did Ramis's career slow down so considerably after Groundhog Day? His movies have always been more than just straight comedies, usually twisting the comedy formula to create something different, and it would seem audiences just lost interest. 

Analyse This, about a gangster prone to panic attacks, was released in 1999 and made a respectable $175m worldwide, while the first American Pie movie, released in the same year, made almost $250m. By 2009, Ramis's waning commercial appeal was solidified by the failure of his last film, Year One, which made just over $60m, while Paul Blart Mall Cop, with sitcom star Kevin James, made around three times as much.

It's sad to see such an important figure in American cinema tail off into obscurity like that, but, from Ghostbusters to Groundhog Day, the influence of the multifaceted Harold Ramis remains strong. Comedy won't be the same without him.

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