Harold Ramis understands a good kick in the groin will always get a laugh.
He just isn’t sure he should be choreographing the kick anymore.
Mr. Ramis’ writing and directorial credits read like a compendium of 20th-century hormonal humor — “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “Animal House” and “Groundhog Day,” to name a few.
His latest feature, “The Ice Harvest,” lets him work in bleaker hues than anything he has done before. It’s a heist picture without a hero, a film noir set against a sleet-drenched backdrop that’s as unforgiving as the film’s bleak themes.
It’s a far cry from the food fights, mud wrestling and gopher gags that typified Mr. Ramis’ early career in Hollywood.
In “Harvest,” John Cusack plays a Wichita, Kan., lawyer who swipes more than $2 million from under a mobster’s nose. The lawyer’s scheme starts to crumble as soon as he fingers the cash. A cascade of debacles follows, mixing the gallows humor of “Fargo” with the small-town underpinnings of “Nobody’s Fool.” The latter makes sense, given that the script’s authors are “Fool” director Robert Benton and the author of its source novel, Richard Russo.
It’s heady company, to be sure, but in conversation, Mr. Ramis reveals himself to be more intellectually curious than the pen behind slob-comedy classics such as “Animal House” and “Back to School” has a right to be.
Mr. Ramis, 61, earned his performing stripes at Second City, the same humor academy where Mike Nichols, Gilda Radner and John Belushi, among many others, picked up their comedy diplomas.
“Second City got even bigger in the intervening years,” he says. “It became more and more attractive as a learning center. Everybody goes through there at some point.”
But not everyone succeeds as Mr. Ramis has.
He parlayed his Second City days into a lucrative triple-threat career — writer, director and performer. When he wasn’t zapping demons in two “Ghostbusters” films, he was popping up in quieter fare such as “Stealing Home” and “As Good As It Gets.”
Comedy remains his metier, even though he professes to read scripts based on merit, not the guffaws-per-frame rate.
Humorists don’t always age gracefully, but Mr. Ramis fared better than most, thanks in part to his 1993 feature “Groundhog Day.”
“It was the first expression of [maturation] in my career, but not the advent of it in my life,” he says. “Even the crazy stuff I did early on was thoughtfully crazy.”
Everyone from Dan Aykroyd to Will Ferrell uses comedy like an anti-establishment cudgel, he says, an approach that dims over time.
“You tend to do parody or lampoon with no emotional investment,” he says. “When you’re young, it’s easier to be nihilistic. You’re at war with importance itself.”
Years pass, and even comedy firebrands lose some of their heat.
Some of today’s hottest frat packers, he says, haven’t faced this cold fact yet.
“I’ve talked to people behind the scenes. [Frat pack stars] are embarrassed by real emotions,” he says.
Erstwhile Ghostbuster Bill Murray serves as an intriguing example of where today’s comedians can go tomorrow.
Mr. Ramis wasn’t surprised by Mr. Murray’s turn toward more serious fare in “Lost in Translation” and this year’s “Broken Flowers.”
“Everyone who knows Bill could see the powerful character that he really is,” he says. “He’s very volcanic in his emotional life.”
The “Stripes”-era Mr. Murray played to his brash, rebellious side, Mr. Ramis says.
“Once he’d done that so many times, there was nothing left to get out of it,” he says.