In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
Caddyshack was okay. Let’s talk about Harold Ramis for a second.
In the last month I’ve seen three classic comedies he’s written, and I’m starting to notice a pattern.
I’m aware that he’s usually listed as one of many writers on these films, but Harold Ramis is a common thread and for the sake of simplicity I’m going to pin most of my analysis of writing on him - if it’s bothering you, just pretend that Ramis represents the direction comedic cinema was going when he was blooming as a writer.
Just as Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey are frozen in Wayne’s World amber at the peak of their careers, the Caddyshack pitch in which the Harold Ramis-quito* is suspended shows him growing, but not matured, as a writer. He’s bordered by the crappier Animal House behind him and the far superior Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day in his future. But it’s as interesting to watch Caddyshack for what Ramis gets wrong as it is for what it gets right.
Because as great as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day are, it’s fascinating to view them as slight tweaks in a set of formula that Ramis had perfected from the clay of crappier films that no longer work. Phil Connors is a more refined, relatable Peter Venkman, who is a more fleshed-out, sane Carl Spackler, who is a more contextualized, plot-essential Bluto. The concept of Groundhog Day is more thematically poignant than Ghostbusters, which has a more unique and hook-y premise than Caddyshack, which, unlike Animal House, at least has a story. The central love story in Groundhog Day is both integral to the plot and the characters, unlike Ghostbusters where it’s relegated to a B-plot, unlike Caddyshack with its throwaway, directionless love story, which is more than anyone can say about any romantic arc in Animal House. Phil is the quintessential relatable antihero, evolved from the lovable but unrelatable Ghostbusters, evolved from the proto-likeable heroes of Caddyshack, evolved from the primordial ooze of Delta House.
This isn’t to say that Groundhog Day is necessarily better than Ghostbusters, or that the immaturity of Caddyshack or Animal House is either unintentional or ineffective. But it is an interesting progression to witness, in terms of Ramis getting older himself, changing his writing style to suit an evolving genre he helped create, and just becoming a funnier writer.
It’s also, of course, possible to chart this same growth for any number of comedians with long careers - I noticed some of the same things about Mel Brooks last week. But to me, a guy like Brooks uses his films as vehicles for his jokes - even in The Producers, a movie with some great characters, everything and everyone is in service of the higher priority - the funny. And although Brooks’ priorities and filmmaking style have changed, his jokes, honestly, haven’t. In Ramis’ case there are way more common threads, and everything is evolving. Over the course of his career you see him honing specific, unique skills - perfecting the sketch movie format, with scenes that both feel independent but serve a greater whole, developing his instinct for quirky, naturalistic hero dialogue and punchy, zany character bits, and actually getting an audience to care about a cast of bizarre, misfit, often reprehensible characters.
So I guess thinking about that probably helped me like Caddyshack a little more than I would have if I had seen it two months ago. But it’s still pretty bad.
The big win for Caddyshack is in fixing the glaring problem of Animal House and creating characters for whom I care even the slightest bit. Chevy Chase plays Ty Webb really well - he’s so casual and understated that it lends some grounding to the cartoons surrounding him. There’s almost nothing to him as a character, though, and unfortunately that hollowness doesn’t serve any larger purpose - he’s just not much of a character. But what Ty Webb does, he does well - his relationship with Danny is great, and as a shiftless, likable adult to whom a shiftless, likable kid looks up, it’s spot on.
Danny’s in a similar boat. He’s nice enough, but sort of for no reason. His lack of ambition isn’t a problem from a plot perspective - being a directionless kid is a fundamental aspect of our generation. But in the big picture Danny doesn’t give us anything to hold on to, because he doesn’t even really care about not caring. But it’s a step in the right direction, and seeing it as one step in the process of honing that character is interesting. You see the potential.
But it doesn’t outweigh the things that are bad. The whole gopher thing is fucking ridiculous. The romantic arcs are almost completely worthless and devoid of chemistry or context. The editing is lazy, muggy and frustrating. There are a lot of characters and scenes that seem gratuitous and desperate, and from Rodney Dangerfield’s entire plotline, which seems cut and pasted from a different movie (although his manic, rapid-fire dialogue gives him the opportunity to tell like three times more jokes than anyone else in the film), to smaller characters like Danny’s rival caddy Tony (Friend? Enemy? Who knows?), the plot is a complete mess. There are so many unrelated plot threads that major characters like Danny and Ty will go for way too long without any screen time at all, and by the time we return to them we’ve stopped caring about them. Bill Murray is funny, but Carl Spackler isn’t the greatest role for him. But to its credit, Caddyshack fails at doing too much, rather than succeeding at doing too little. I’ll give it that.
Ultimately, Caddyshack doesn’t really hold up. There are a handful of jokes that still work. It clearly contains the seeds of good comedy. But in the end, what’s great about Caddyshack is that it’s a museum piece, a specimen - a fish growing legs and learning to breathe air. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s fascinating. But you don’t laugh all that much in a museum.
*This joke may very well undermine any point I ever try to make about comedy for the rest of my life.