With Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, and Mel Brooks headed down the long slide to artistic decrepitude, writer-actor-producer-director Harold Ramis is probably the last, best hope for mainstream Hollywood comedy. Ramis has spent much of the past 20 years trying to conceal his intelligence from movie moguls. This creative conglomerate began his career as a writer for Chicago’s Second City troupe, then moved to New York where he co-authored and performed in The National Lampoon Show (1974), a stage revue whose cast, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, subsequently formed the nucleus of Saturday Night Live’s Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Ramis chose to affiliate himself with the rival SCTV series, the most brilliant comedy ensemble television has yet produced.

After two seasons as SCTV head writer and cast member, Ramis went to Hollywood, where he co-scripted National Lampoon’s Animal House, the progenitor of the belch-fart-turd genre of gross-out farce. Caddyshack (1980), his directorial debut, mined the same coarse vein, the antithesis of Ramis’ cerebral, satirical television work. His follow-up effort, National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), had a warmer, gentler tone, as did his writing for Ghostbusters (1984), in which he also appeared. In the following decade, he directed only one additional feature, the genial but aimless Club Paradise, while continuing to write for and act in other filmmakers’ projects.

Ramis’ artistic breakthrough, a return to the keen-edged wit of his television efforts, came with Groundhog Day (1993), one of the rare contemporary Hollywood comedies with substance. The writer-director clearly relished the seriocomic possibilities of that film’s central conceit. The gimmick of a television weatherman doomed to relive the same day inspired Ramis to create an intricate, fugal narrative structure while raising some thorny ethical questions. (If you knew in advance what was going to happen each day, would you use that knowledge to become a better person or to exploit others?) Ramis followed this critical and popular hit with last year’s Stuart Saves His Family, an even richer film that, lamentably, flopped with a public too often burned by slipshod SNL spinoffs. Al Franken’s terminally insecure cable-access, self-help guru, Stuart Smalley, is tossed into a tailspin when called upon to rescue his grotesquely dysfunctional nuclear family. Ramis’ direction is so finely shaded that viewers can scarcely determine whether to laugh or cry at pathetic Stuart’s excruciating predicaments.

Multiplicity, Ramis’ latest effort, is less satisfying than his last two movies, but a clear cut above the dumb stuff Hollywood is presently fobbing off as entertainment. Like Groundhog Day, Multiplicity centers on a fantastic premise. L.A. construction boss Doug Kinney (Michael Keaton) is overstressed by the conflicting demands of his job, wife Laura (Andie MacDowell), and two children. Geneticist Dr. Owen Leeds (Harris Yulin) suggests a solution: He offers to clone Doug, thereby doubling the time he can devote to his professional and personal lives. At first, this scheme works perfectly. Workaholic Doug 2 outperforms his colleagues, while Doug 1 attends to his kids, allowing Laura to return to her former career as a realtor. But life as a househusband fails to fulfill him, which leads to another cloning—compulsively domestic Doug 3. A confusing situation grows even more mind-boggling when the rebellious clones decide to reproduce themselves, resulting in Doug 4, a retarded third-generation replication of the original.

Keaton, in a long-awaited return to Beetlejuice form, plays all four roles, which means that the actor faces the technical challenge of appearing in as many as four incarnations within a single frame. Resourcefully, he manages to devise distinctive look, personality, speech pattern, and body language for each of the Dougs. Although he falls a shade short of the ultimate achievement in this vein—Jeremy Irons’ staggering tour de force in the creepy Dead Ringers—his performance is nevertheless virtuosic. Particular highlights are the slapstick sequence where Dougs 1 and 2 unexpectedly turn up at the same posh restaurant, and the Boccaccian episode in which the three Doug reproductions defy the original’s “No Clone Nookie” rule regarding Laura.

The screenplay, a collaboration of two teams—Chris Miller and Mary Hale, and Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel—lacks the edge and compression of Ramis’ own writing. Twenty minutes of exposition are consumed in cranking the clone premise into gear, and, at two hours, the film is so long that it tends to wear down interest in its theme. But the inevitable identity mix-ups are handled far more deftly than in the insultingly improbable The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and even when the writers’ inspiration flags they manage to recover with fresh gags that make the slack spots worth sitting through.

Multiplicity is essentially a one-man show, though the squirrely-eyed Yulin, fresh from his over-the-top triumph as Stuart Smalley’s oppressive father, underplays effectively as the geneticist, and Ramis’ SCTV colleague Eugene Levy has several zesty scenes as a slacker concrete contractor. The only weak link in the ensemble is MacDowell, whose limp efforts similarly marred Groundhog Day. With thousands of talented actresses waiting tables, it’s difficult to explain the repeated employment of this frizzy-haired, damp-eyed, gummy-smiled bumbler whose wan Laura is far more clonelike than any of Keaton’s characters. Whatever her physical attraction—these matters are highly subjective, of course—she still, after a decade on-screen, fails to evince a minimal command of her craft. Her mushy, whiny diction is a particular liability; the studio bosses who hired Glenn Close to dub her in Greystoke knew what they were doing. MacDowell’s thriving career reflects contemporary Hollywood’s fear of forceful, talented women. If a new Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis were to materialize today, she’d probably never make it past the studio gates.

Apart from the cinematic wizardry that allows four Keatons to interact on-screen, Multiplicity isn’t a particularly graceful example of filmmaking technique. Laszlo Kovacs’ camerawork is uncharacteristically muddy, probably a consequence of all the traveling mattes and superimpositions required to execute the special effects. But the movie is sweet-spirited and often genuinely amusing, a welcome change from bloated remakes of puerile ’50s TV sitcoms and infantile Adam Sandler and Chris Farley vehicles. We’re not talking Lubitsch, Sturges, and Wilder here, let alone the sublime Buster Keaton, but Multiplicity offers the most fun you’re likely to have at the multiplex all summer.CP