In a year full of highly anticipated movies that fall short of fulfilling expectations, it’s kind of refreshing to see a movie clear the bar even if that bar was set rather low. Yes, it’s hard to think of a movie more besieged than Paul Feig‘s Ghostbusters, a cynically-made but rather harmless reboot of the classic 1984 comedy. It’s a movie that went from “that’s a bad idea” to “we must smother it till it dies gasping” in the minds of a lot of terribly vicious internet trolls, and like all internet overreactions, the truth is, when you see the finished movie, you realize that a whole lot of time and energy’s been wasted because this Ghostbusters isn’t all that bad. Actually, I rather enjoyed it.
That’s not to say that it’s excellent, brilliantly made cinema, or that it matches the original in terms of laughs or ingenuity. It doesn’t. But you do laugh a lot, and there are occasionally flashes of inventiveness that might have come to fruition had Feig and company been able to leave what Ivan Reitman, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis had done in the 80s alone. Those guys, ultimately, weren’t able to even catch their own lightning in a bottle, so why Feig even tries is a mystery. A few less Easter eggs, and more time with the four funny ladies at the heart of this thing might have bought it another star in the rating.
The film starts boldly by casting itself as the distant cousin of the original film; you might recognize the features, but this is a whole new person. We meet Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) who’s dedicated herself to being a *serious* scientist on the tenure track at Columbia until her past as an amateur spiritualist with former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) comes back to, ahem, haunt her. With Abby’s colleague, engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), the pair discover an actual factual ghost, the sharing of which on YouTube quickly ends their academic careers, but inspires them to go into business for themselves…
But since the housing bubble burst in 2008, no one has three mortgages these days, the good ole Hook and Ladder Company 8 is woefully out of the ladies’ price-range, so they set up shop above a Chinese restaurant. With the exception of the Mayor of New York (Andy Garcia) trying to cover up the city’s growing paranormal issues by painting the Ghostbusters as frauds, this would be the last time the movie demonstrates the closest thing to imagination. When Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) arrives to fill the role of the working class, down-to-Earth Ghostbuster, and the endless cameos of the surviving actors from the original film begin, it becomes hard for the movie to separate homage from remake.
Of course, we here on Nerd Bastards covered well the various developments of Ghostbusters including each new revelation of an original cast member making a cameo, and in as much as it felt like sometimes I was counting them off one at a time, it also felt like Feig was doing the same thing in the editing room. When Bill Murray walks into the film dressed like FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson as a paranormal debunker the film grinds to a screeching halt, and it happens every time this Ghostbusters references the last, whether its the mayor’s aide worried about “mass hysteria” or the fact that the movie’s climax involves a Midtown skyscraper being enveloped in supernatural clouds as ghost after ghost is unleashed on Manhattan.
Indeed the deeper you get into the film, the more it stumbles because the plot hinges on a terribly uninteresting villain played by Neil Casey, whose motivations for unleashing ghost hell on the world are never really explored or explained. If the movie doesn’t care about building a complex or identifiable antagonist, then why should the audience? On top of that, the final battle between the Ghostbusters and the specters unfurls in a way that’s everything we hate about modern blockbusters: a mess of CG creatures streaming from a light in the sky. Any and all rules about what ghosts are capable of are thrown out the window, as the ladies fight back with so many different gadgets in would bankrupt Q Branch.
Having said that though, I was entertained. Feig does a good job not just making the movie funny, but giving it atmosphere. Where the director succeeds over his predecessor Reitman is that he’s able to move the genre needle to being a closer balance of comedy and horror; there are no outright jumps, this is not The Conjuring after all, but it knows how to manipulate framing and sound effects to be slightly off-putting. And this can’t be said enough, but this is probably the best 3D I’ve seen on screen in a while. Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman does great work making the imagery crisp and clean, and the dayglow blues and greens of the specters really pop off the screen, as does the nonstop stream of ectoplasm they spit out.
Feig’s true talent is harnessing the chemistry and timing of his four main stars. Wiig and McCarthy have been dynamite together before, and slide pretty easily into a good rhythm as co-leaders of the new team. I’m only aware of McKinnon from her Hillary Clinton impersonations on Saturday Night Live, but it’s not hard to see a star-making turn in playing Holtzmann, whose definitely the flashy part but the comedienne clearly loves being the goofy and slightly deranged tech expert of the ‘Busters. Jones draws the short straw because the function of her character borrows so closely to one of the original team members, but you can’t fault her enthusiasm and energy, and the script does try to make Patty on par with the brainiacs by making her an amateur expert on New York’s history.
The pity is that Feig either lacked confidence in his abilities, or felt too reverential to the original, to make Ghostbusters the bold experiment in should have been. I’m reminded of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, another movie that tried to do something different while paying tribute to the seminal film it was based on at the same time, the result being a movie that felt somewhat shackled for its own love of the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film. I’d like to say that Feig made the same mistakes in Ghostbusters in order to put it all that behind him, but the film’s conclusion and the obligatory post-credits scene, show just how long the shadow of Ghostbusters ’84 is cast.
Whether the filmmakers thought they could only jump by being so closely tied to the original, or they thought they were being “super-clever” with so many sly references, it’s too bad that Feig and everyone didn’t have confidence in their own skills. When not wrestling with the proverbial ghosts of the past, Ghostbusters is thoroughly enjoyable, with some shades of wit. I’d even go as far as say that maybe one or two of the callbacks, particularly Slimer’s appearance, are worth keeping. The bottomline is that this is not the apocalypse. Seeing four women in Ghostbusters coveralls was not the end of the world, and more than that, it’s a good time at the movies. If you set your expectations to “popcorn chomping good fun” rather than “transcendent comedic experience that will change your life,” you will not be disappointed.