The acrimony that has greeted Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters has been historic. It is quite possible that no film, in the long, angry, two-decade history of the Internet, has been so aggressively pre-hated. A toxic fusion of fierce overprotectiveness of the beloved original 1984 film coupled with ghastly, rampant sexism over the new film’s all-female cast has had denizens of online forums and social media frothing at the mouth with outrage at the film for having the gall to exist. Legions of pasty, irate true believers have heaved bile all over any and every mention of the film to appear online. The teaser trailer—admittedly not a great one—bore the dubious distinction of being voted the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. The knives have been out for this movie in a truly unprecedented way.
So now that it’s finally here, does 2016’s Ghostbusters deserve all the sight-unseen abuse that it has endured? Is it a travesty so volatile that it instantly immolates every childhood memory and existing copy of the original film in its deliverance? Of course not. The truth is the new Ghostbusters is resolutely…fine. Neither abomination nor classic, the film has its moments and hums along mostly agreeably. It follows the contemporary reboot playbook a bit too faithfully, more focused on references and iconography than making its own way. Quite simply, it isn’t a movie that should inspire especially powerful reactions in either positive or negative directions.
Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a professor of physics at Columbia University, toeing the line for her stern superior (Charles Dance) so that she can achieve tenure. This is complicated by the resurgence of a book on the paranormal that she wrote years earlier with her former friend and colleague Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Erin confronts Abby, who has set up shop at a far less prestigious university with her eccentric lab partner Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), to demand that the book be removed from circulation until her tenure is locked down. Abby capitulates with the caveat that Erin accompany herself and Holtzmann on an excursion to a haunted mansion. There, the three encounter a full-torso, ectoplasm-vomiting apparition. The experience is thrilling for all parties, but when footage of the event goes viral, it leads to all of them being fired. Out in the cold, the trio decides to strike out on their own, determined to capture ghosts and further their metaphysical studies.
Along the way, they cross paths with Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a subway employee who encounters a ghost of her own. Patty is a de facto New York City historian and decides to join up with the group. While the Ghostbusters (as the media dubs them over the jargon-filled mouthful of a title that Erin prefers) struggle with their Holtzmann-engineered equipment as well as derisive public perception (and an unsupportive mayor, played by a surprisingly sprightly Andy Garcia), a man named Rowan (Neil Casey) is setting off devices of his own making around the city to amplify paranormal activity and weaken the boundaries separating the living and the dead. His efforts set up the requisite situation where our heroes must stave off the Apocalypse.
Ghostbusters starts out more strongly than it winds up. The opening sequence, with Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods as an unctuous tour guide at the aforementioned haunted mansion, is very funny, as are the establishing scenes of the three scientists. Yet Ghostbusters never manages to maintain much comedic momentum as it barrels along. All told, it’s probably the least funny of the films Feig has directed. The big laughs and great lines just aren’t there most of the time, at least not consistently. Maybe it was the restrictiveness of the PG-13 rating (a first for the perpetually R-rated Feig), the burdens of corporate franchise-building or the massiveness of the special effects, but Ghostbusters doesn’t only fall short of the comedic fleetness of the 1984 classic, but of Bridesmaids and Spy as well. It’s difficult to imagine quotes from this movie being bandied about in 30 years’ time. And some bits are well below Feig’s punching weight, such as an Ozzy gag that would have seemed moldy in 2002.
Additionally, the story is a bust. Ghostbusters has never been much of a centerpiece for villains (Gozer the Gozerian and Vigo the Carpathian being demonic avatars rather than actual characters), but Rowan simply doesn’t work on any level. He’s not menacing, funny or interesting, and his ultimate plan to unleash otherworldly forces upon New York feels very rote. Making the villain a doughy, spiteful nerd was a prescient move, but the film doesn’t make a meal out of that aspect of the character. As a dweeby acolyte of evil, he’s a precipitous drop from the similar Janosz Poha from Ghostbusters II. And when Rowan’s plan does fall into place, the resulting chaos is too, well, chaotic to enjoy. There are giant ghosts stomping around Times Square like parade balloons (including some that ARE parade balloons), swirling green energy fields and some familiar spectral faces from 1984 popping up, and it’s all very unwieldy. One of the greatest things about the original film was how eerie and foreboding its climax managed to become in spite of the comedic proceedings, and this film manages to conjure none of that feeling, relying instead on cartoony overkill. Even when Rowan mutates into his final, gigantic form (and you betcha there’s a “choose the form of the destructor” callback), it’s almost shocking how uninspired that form is. And, most peculiarly, the finale opts to make an extended reference to, of all things, Poltergeist II: The Other Side.
The real strength of Ghostbusters lies with its cast. This is a real murderer’s row of comedic talent, something conveniently ignored by the film’s dissenters. The film is too rigid in its construction to really allow the cast to cut loose most of the time, but everyone does fine work. Wiig is very subdued here, the duties of being the straight (wo)man placed on her shoulders, but the moments where she gets to play up Erin’s awkward side are great. McCarthy is also restrained, the family-friendly atmosphere robbing her of her signature profane brassiness, but she is also on her game (her constant battle with a Chinese deliveryman over the wonton content of her soup is wonderful). Leslie Jones, SNL’s current force-of-nature showstopper, doesn’t steal as many scenes as you would expect her to, but brings a healthy dose of her very particular flavor to the mix. Chris Hemsworth is also a lot of fun as the team’s hipster-himbo secretary, an Adonis so blithely detached from the world that he’s barely capable of fielding a phone call.
But the real star of the film is McKinnon, who basically straps the whole thing to her back like a proton pack and walks off with it. Holtzmann is the perfect vessel for her wild-eyed madness, and in every scene, every line reading, McKinnon is committed. Holtzmann is essentially the Egon of the new team (though none are true counterparts, thankfully), but McKinnon makes her a character unlike any previous Ghostbuster. She takes mischievous glee in everything, from her unstable equipment to her basic interactions with regular humans, a cat-ate-the-canary grin always adorning her face. McKinnon is so great here that one almost wishes that Feig had opted to cede the entire film to her the way that Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis did with Bill Murray in the original.
Honestly, the new film is overall about on par with 1989’s serviceable Ghostbusters II rather than the first film. It feels, in that same way, more lead-footed and effects-driven in lieu of the breezy vibe of the original. Ghostbusters is an impossible film to recreate, and its looming shadow is definitely a hindrance here. This new film is far too beholden to it, with a steady stream of callbacks, nods and cutesy cameos from the original cast (oddly, Murray’s is the weakest), and even mimicking much of its structure. Feig and this foursome could do wonders with this concept if they were more willing to ignore what came before and follow their own instincts. This could be a situation where a sequel could feasibly exceed its predecessor, with the referential baggage and constant impulse to genuflect out of the way, but a post-credits scene indicates that a future film might steer even more directly into the original film’s mythology. This team is capable of much more than mindless fan service, especially in a climate where the very people they mean to service hate their guts reflexively. 2016’s Ghostbusters is hardly the misbegotten sacrilege that angry mob will have you believe it is, but it feels locked in a confinement stream of deferential ring-kissing, trapped in a containment unit of bloated franchise maintenance. Better to give up the ghost and embrace free-floating, Class-5 inspiration.
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