Written by: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig (screenplay), Ivan Reitman (original film), Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis (original screenplay)
Directed by: Paul Feig
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, & Leslie Jones
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Answer the call.
First, a word about what this Ghostbusters isn’t: no, it’s not the long-awaited, forever mooted third installment. As someone who grew up with the originals (and even dressed up as a Ghostbuster for at least a few Halloweens), I spent a good (read: possibly embarrassing) chunk of my teens and early twenties hoping for a sequel. However, once it became clear that Bill Murray would never seriously entertain the idea (and with good reason on account of the fact that, hey, he’s Bill Murray), it became easy enough to let go—and even more so once Harold Ramis passed away.
I find it hard to imagine a scenario where a Ghostbusters 3 would even be worthwhile without those two involved, so it’s just as well to settle for the pretty decent video game from a few years back. Barring that, I guess you could just imagine the bummer stuff with Ray and Winston at the beginning of Ghostbusters 2 stretched out over 100 minutes, and who wants that, really? Besides, it goes without saying that you can’t blame a movie for not being what’s in your head—believe me, if I can make peace with the fact that they remade A Nightmare on Elm Street instead of producing a sequel, anything is possible.
Now, as for what this new Ghostbusters is? As far as reboots go, it’s fairly inspired, frequently hilarious, a little slapdash, and maybe a bit too desperate to win approval from its fan base. You could certainly do worse since its surefire approach is in keeping with the spirit of the franchise by teaming one of America’s finest comedy directors in Paul Feig with frequent co-writer Kate Dippold and a wealth of comedic talent, many of whom hail from Saturday Night Live. That most of them are women is both incidental and terrific all at once: while it takes just enough time to throw some shade at those who would disapprove, Ghostbusters never feels like a gimmick. Rather, it just so happens that Feig plucked this talent because he truly believes in them, and that makes all the difference. You should be ready to believe, too.
However, there are times when you wonder just how much the screenplay and the final product really believes in itself. By now, we’re all accustomed to the remake conundrum: if you stray too far, you risk alienating the audience. If you don’t stray far enough, you risk a stultifying sense of familiarity. Ghostbusters at least aims for the sweet spot in between—I’m not saying it nails it, but I am saying that it tries. Compared to many recent remakes, it’s downright inspired because you can sense it trying to be its own thing even as it’s retracing the original’s steps and craning its neck for your approval each time it makes a callback.
You sense this early on: while the prologue isn’t an exact recreation of the library sequence that opened the original, it’s similar enough, particularly when it climaxes with the camera pushing in on a terrified character (in this case, a tour guide to a local historical site) while the now iconic Ray Parker Jr. theme song blares. For a brief moment, I was worried that I was in for another bout of déjà vu, albeit one that seemed to be clever enough (there are some great, dry jokes buried in the tour guide’s spiel).
But it soon becomes clear that this is a reboot that’s working within a familiar framework without being suffocated by it. Sure, it leans on pretty much all of the iconography, going so far as to invent origin stories for the logo and the Ecto-1 (and this is not to mention repurposing other stuff as gags), but it never quite gets overwhelmed by it. At times, it feels like one of those superhero origin movies where you wish you could just speed past the stuff you already know and let these characters do their own thing because this cast deserves it.
It’s for this reason that I find it hard to dismiss Feig’s take on Ghostbusters—at the very least, he seems to understand that the characters made the original film. Everyone may have been drawn in by the high concept and the eye-catching, effects-driven razzle dazzle, but it was the chemistry and performances that gave it staying power. You come for the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, but you stick around to see these guys bullshit about Twinkies under a cloud of cigarette smoke. Despite its outlandish premise, Ghostbusters thrives on a human, working-class spirit—essentially, it’s about a ragtag group that does well, only to be shit on, and Feig absolutely gets this is a big way.
Not only do he and Dippold recreate the dynamic that pits the Ghostbusters against the city, but they really hone in on the ragtag dynamic. When we meet Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), they’re childhood friends who have drifted apart—having disavowed her past paranormal research, the former is straining for respectability via a tenured gig at Columbia, while the latter is still off conducting experiments in a vain effort to vindicate her strong belief in ghosts. By eventually forming the Ghostbusters (yes, the two are naturally kicked out of their respective universities, natch), they’re seeking validation and reconciling with each other in some attempt to provide some (admittedly hamfisted) character arcs.
Obviously, that latter storyline is nowhere to be found in the original Ghostbusters, and it’s indicative of this film’s willingness to depart and strike off on its own when need be. The single smartest move Feig and company make is not straining to recreate the characters and dynamics from the original. Nobody’s playing the “female version” of Spengler, Stantz, Venkman, or Zeddemore, and the film is most certainly the better for it. McCarthy and Wiig are the most known quantities here, making them ideal candidates as the relatively straight-laced duo—which is not to say they aren’t funny. On the contrary, the two are quite amusing together, particularly during the more riff-centric bits. Feig continues to be one of the few directors capable of channeling McCarthy’s shtick onto just the right wavelength—she’s always at her best when she’s earnestly relatable (even when she’s being bounced around by a haywire proton pack).
The breakout stars here—at least for those who haven’t been keeping up with SNL in recent years—are Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, the film’s two most outlandish and indelible personalities. McKinnon all but steals the film as Holtzmann, Yates’s gadget-obsessed assistant; in a movie that requires some kind of personality, she provides it and then some. It’s the sort of performance that’s constantly whirring and whizzing before our eyes, as McKinnon provides the sort of manic energy that demands your eye’s attention whenever she’s in the frame (even when she’s just eating a can of Pringles). If nothing else, this devilishly clever, Looney Tunes (or Animaniacs?) cast-off singlehandedly justifies this film’s existence
Jones’s Patty Tolan—an MTA worker who joins the group after encountering a ghost—has a similarly electric presence, one that exhibits a delightful range. When need be, she’s able to go over-the-top without becoming too farcical, but she can just as easily deadpan her lines. If McKinnon is the ensemble’s obvious MVP, then Jones emerges as the quietly essential utility player. What’s more, she’s not a token addition, as Patty brings critical knowledge as the group’s history buff—she’s not just an afterthought.
Whenever Feig is tasked with focusing on the energy of its terrific ensemble (I haven’t even mentioned Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin, the team’s absurdly air-headed secretary and something of a comic secret weapon), Ghostbusters sings well enough. His style tends to thrive on a riffing, improv approach that can be uneven: you sense that he’s constantly searching for a joke, which leads to some scenes (like the various gadget-training bits) feeling a bit extraneous, if not arbitrary. He doesn’t quite exhibit Ivan Reitman’s tonal control, either, as his film plays a little bit more broadly than the original, which is fine. In many ways, it feels more like an adaptation of the various Ghostbusters cartoons, especially whenever McKinnon is doing crazy McKinnon stuff.
As is typical of Feig’s oeuvre, Ghostbusters is plagued by a bit of narrative shagginess. Sometimes, it feels like a collection of scenes that happens to bump into a plot (in a nutshell, Neil Casey is a bullied geek looking to summon the apocalypse) every now and then. The original had this sort of pseudo hangout vibe too, but where Reitman was able to find a through-line, Feig struggles to make the whole thing cohere on a consistent basis. It works well enough to set the stage for the big, spectacle-driven action sequences, even if that’s hardly something at which Feig excels. McKinnon (again) does shine during a pretty great slow-mo bit, and the wonderfully rich, macabre ghost designs pop off of the screen—it’s just that you’re faintly wishing for a little more to separate it from the usual flurry of CGI.
There’s something a bit frustrating about not seeing these great parts add up to a truly outstanding whole. Obviously, no one’s expecting it to reach the heights of the iconic original, yet there’s a nagging sense that Ghostbusters isn’t quite the best movie in which these characters can appear. Some of that results from the slack narrative (the film is nicely breezy, yet you almost wish it were longer even after 116 minutes), but the film’s insistence on running back to the original’s shadow is also a culprit. Ghostbusters isn’t a film that just winks at its audience—it practically peppers them with recurring gags in the form of clumsy cameos and forced call-backs.
Its heart is mostly in the right place with many of these (Murray’s appearance as the de facto Walter Peck is really fun, particularly its punchline), though it sometimes feels like a bit too much, almost as if Feig and company keep wrapping themselves into a security blanket of nostalgia. Doing it so often reeks of a trepidation this film shouldn’t have, not when its cast inspires so much confidence. I understand where it’s coming from, but it sometimes has the effect of hamstringing the point of such a bold reboot. I can’t wait to see what this cast and crew without the specter of the original film constantly looming over them (though it should be noted that the film’s final credit stinger offers little relief in this regard).
The decision to have the villain ultimately take the form of the franchise’s iconic logo feels unwittingly appropriate. Watching this female cast defeat an angry, nerdy man by literally shooting him in the dick makes it tempting to read the climax as a rebuttal of the toxic misogyny surrounding the film, but the film does little with this obvious subtext (outside of a few funny aside quips, it’s a non-issue). Instead, it’s more appropriate to read this climax as a microcosm of this film's struggle to loosen itself from the iconic franchise.
Even though it clearly loves paying tribute to this heritage, it also feels like a film trying to form its own identity. It does so, if only because it leaves me craving a follow-up. In the meantime, this suffices as a promising reboot that honors the legacy a little too much. Showing an obvious desperation just to be loved is hardly the worst thing I can say about a film, though—especially when it's also providing a blockbuster platform that has been so often denied women.
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