Ghostbusters (2016)

(Strap in, this is going to be a long one. I apologize in advance.)

Let me admit my bias upfront.  One of my earliest, fondest movie memories from my childhood is from watching 1984’s Ghostbusters.  After getting their first call and catching their first ghost, Peter Venkman bursts out from behind locked doors and exclaims, “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!”  I was maybe five years old at the time and to that point in my life, completely devoid of the context of Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” statement, it was one of the funniest things my ears had ever heard.  I ran out into the dining room and regaled my parents with this line, only to have my dad, probably holding in laughter, say, “Son, we don’t talk like that in this house.”  I said, “Oh, ok,” and ran right back into the living room to finish watching the movie. From an early age, I knew the answer to “Who ya gonna call?”  When you catch certain movies at a right time in your life, they become personal; for me, Ghostbusters was a foundational text of comedy.

For a long time, there was talk of a 3rd Ghostbusters film that Dan Aykroyd was trying fiercely to get off the ground. That talk basically went out the window with the death of Harold Ramis a few years ago, plus the fact that Bill Murray was reluctant to sign on.  Personally, I was glad that it wasn’t happening, because I saw little upside in a sequel when the other sequel, Ghostbusters II, wasn’t really all that good either.  On top of that, Aykroyd hadn’t done anything remotely funny in years, while Murray, still as funny as ever, had seen his career go in a very different direction than when he was Venkman.  It’s incredibly hard to make a funny movie, and it’s even harder to capture lightning in a bottle twice and make an equally funny sequel.

That talk got replaced by the news that there was going to be a reboot of the Ghostbusters cinematic universe (why does everything have to be a cinematic universe now?) and that Paul Feig would be the director, and that was going to do it with four female leads.  And then everyone lost their minds.  Perspective and impartiality went right out the window and everyone had an opinion (positive or negative) about a movie they hadn’t even seen yet.  I’d say the talk changed from being about the movie, but it was never really about the movie; it was all about ruined childhoods, sexist internet trolls, female empowerment, and whatever else bubbled up to the surface regarding the film.  Now, at long last, Ghostbusters has arrived on the big screen in the summer of 2016, and I am sad to report that it is neither the destroyer of childhoods nor the crowning achievement of women’s equality in cinema.  It’s just somewhere in between.

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Reboots and remakes have become almost the de facto move by studios in the last few years.  People, myself included, can say what they want about the needlessness of remakes, but they are sadly part of the fabric of Hollywood, going back to the inception of the “talkies” when it actually made sense to remake the silent films that came before.  Alfred Hitchcock even remade some of his own films when he hit it big in Hollywood.  It’s hard to judge today whether a remake or reboot is necessary.  Personally, I believe that the majority do not, though some are enjoyable and provide an interesting new take on the material or are even an improvement on the original, though most are not.

Ghostbusters exists in some weird, nebulous reboot area that has some idea of wanting to do its own thing and tell an original story under the banner of the Ghostbusters name, but it also seems to feel obligated to acknowledge the original film through a story beats, callbacks, and cameos of the original main cast.  This compromises the overall quality of the film, as it doesn’t have the conviction to stand as its own thing.

There are hints of what could be a really good movie here.  The backstory provided to the team members that provides the basis for how they form works pretty well.  Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) are two childhood friends who came to believe in the paranormal when Erin experienced something as a kid, earning her the nickname Ghost Girl, and Abby was the only one who believed her. They grew up, published a book that didn’t sell, and then went their separate ways.  Circumstances bring them back together, along with Abby’s assistant Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), a brilliant but probably unstable and experimental scientist.  Eventually, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a subway attendant who knows a lot about the history of the city, joins the group after witnessing an event.

Their formation is pretty organic.  I also appreciated the way they incorporated the story into the modern world and set it in opposition to the world of scientific academia, but also couched it in the modern landscape of the proliferation of “reality” television shows about ghost hunters.

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For all of the consternation over the “gimmick” of casting four females as the Ghostbusters, Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, and Jones are fine in the movie.  But they also don’t hold a candle to the original cast.  It’s an impossible situation, and outside of being a purely financial move by Sony, I just don’t know why you would make this film.  Throw out all of the internet troll comments and the female empowerment support for the movie.  These are four funny, entertaining actresses.  I have enjoyed watching all four of them perform in other places, whether in various movies or on SNL (Jones in particular cracks me up every time she has a Weekend Update segment).  Thankfully, none of these four characters are one-to-one stand-ins for the original characters.  McCarthy maybe comes the closest to being like Ray Stantz, but that is it.  Wiig is the grounded one, while McKinnon and Jones get to do the more outrageous, scene-stealing comedy.  McKinnon is probably the standout of the film, though like with SNL, there’s about 10% of her performance that I could do without.  McCarthy, on the flip side, feels like the one most constrained by the project and not able to ad lib as much as she could.

My biggest complaint/concern leading up to the release was that I would love to see them in almost anything else other than a Ghostbusters remake.  Having now seen the movie, I would still love to see them in anything but a Ghostbusters remake.  They have all been funnier in other things.  Paul Feig has directed better movies.  These four women are deserving of material that is far better than what they got here.  The film doesn’t come close to being a disaster but it also doesn’t reach the heights of what these four women and Feig are capable of in the comedy genre.  And when you are taking on the task of remaking Ghostbusters, that’s not good enough.

The script, written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, has some originality and potential but is poorly executed.  Some of the jokes are pretty funny, but some of it also falls really flat, especially from the supporting cast.  The opening, which features actor Zach Woods giving a tour of a house museum, has a few jokes that are strained and forced (“It was in this very room where P.T. Barnum first had the idea to enslave elephants.”).

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The story also strains to shoehorn a plethora of cameos, almost none of which are entertaining.  Bill Murray appears in two scenes as a ghost skeptic, and it’s a role that really could have been anybody.  It’s frankly a waste of Murray, as almost none of it is funny from his end.  Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver all pop up at various points, though Weaver doesn’t show up until the credits are running.  Hudson’s cameo feels the most natural.

Along with the cameos, the film cuts itself off at the knees by constantly calling back to the original movie.  Scientists get kicked out of universities because their work embarrasses the institution.  The firehouse makes a brief appearance, before they settle in above a Chinese restaurant.  They meet with the Mayor (Andy Garcia) and the words “mass hysteria” are uttered a few times.  The villain asks them to choose a form for him to appear in so they can fight him.  There is a ghostly Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade (what?) that is just in there to give the audience a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man appearance.  All of these callbacks to the original film just made me start thinking about the original film instead, and took me out of the experience of this movie; it’s counterproductive.  It also doesn’t help that they include the original song at the very opening of the film and later incorporate terrible covers of it later.  Also, the only thing that really made my inner fanboy blood boil was the post-credits scene.  Just no.  Eff that noise.

There’s also a lack of narrative consistency.  Some of this may be nitpicking on my part, but the first “ghost” that they capture, at a rock concert, that features an Ozzy Osbourne cameo (a joke so far past its culturally relevant expiration date that it’s almost embarrassing), isn’t actually a ghost but a demon, complete with wings and horns and whatnot.  There is a difference between demons/monsters/ghouls and ghosts/spectres.  Again, this is a nitpick, because in the original, Gozer, Zuul, and all of that were not really ghosts either, but they also were not captured by the Ghostbusters.  Also, the proton packs and the modified weapons that McKinnon’s Holtzman creates do different things at different points in the story.  Proton packs work like lassos, meant to corral and help to capture the ghost in a containment unit, which is their initial function.  In the third act, though, suddenly the proton packs are used to effectively kill the ghosts they are fighting like some kind of laser gun.  It’s a small thing, but it’s a lack of consistency.

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What isn’t a small thing, is how badly the film botches the two main male cast members, Chris Hemsworth as their receptionist Kevin, and Neil Casey as the villain/antagonist, Rowan.  Casting Hemsworth as a piece of beefcake eye candy could have been a brilliant piece of meta commentary on the film and gender roles in these kinds of summer blockbusters.  Hemsworth has a few moments when he is funny, I have seen him be very funny before, but Kevin is just too dumb of a character to be as funny as he should have been.  Imagine the most stereotypical “dumb blonde” caricature in a movie, the dumbest version of a ditzy blonde that Marilyn Monroe (who wasn’t really dumb, but in on the joke) ever played, and then dumb that character down about 25% more and you have Kevin.  It initially is entertaining, but wears thin incredibly fast.

Easily the worst aspect of the film, though, is Rowan.  Initially introduced as just a weirdo on the subway platform, I almost did a double take when I realized after the fact that this was the villain.  He is a complete letdown.  Ineffectual, unimpressive, and completely forgettable.  Nothing about him felt interesting or inspired.  His background felt lazy.  He is completely unmemorable and undermines the overall story.  It’s also incredibly convenient that he destroys parts of the city on to have those buildings magically restored when he is ultimately defeated.  Apparently action comedies aren’t subject to the same scrutiny of city destruction that straightforward action blockbusters and superhero movies are subject to.

I had strong reservations about Ghostbusters going into it.  I was never really interested in a Ghostbusters 3 from Dan Aykroyd, I wasn’t interested in this reboot featuring four women, and I feel confident in my heart of hearts that if they had remade Ghostbusters with four guys I would have had an equal amount of skepticism and reservation.  In the end, my reservations were partly confirmed.  I wanted to come out of the movie and say I was wrong and that Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, and Jones were enough to win me over.  As I suspected, the four women are fine, but the story they were working with was beneath them, which made the overall product an uphill climb to begin with.  There was no way to win this situation, regardless of the internet trolls.  It does not come close to being on the same level as the original film.  The original still holds up, and is still a pantheon-level comedy.  So why are you making this movie?  The answer is the almighty dollar.  As far as summer fare goes, it’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen this summer, but it’s also far from the best thing I’ve seen this summer.  It is not worthy of putting on a pedestal nor of having charges leveled against it of ruining childhoods.  It looks good and has some things going for it, but the story is lackluster and poorly executed.  I think a lot of the criticism of this movie so far in advance of its release has in some way rendered it critic-proof, which is why it enjoys such a good rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Nobody wants to be lumped in with the internet trolls who are rating this movie one star on IMDb.  I refuse to lump myself in with them, but I also refuse to join a mindless throng that gives this film a blank check.  Instead, I damn it with faint praise.  The four female leads are perfectly fine, but much of what is around them is not.  Now, Paul Feig, please go give me a movie the utilizes these four women to their peak potential.  Preferably something that is not a reboot.

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Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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