I told myself before seeing the new Ghostbusters that I would completely block the other Ghostbusters movies from my mind. I would offer Paul Feig’s movie starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones a completely blank slate, pretend I was simply there to see a fun, new supernatural comedy. Screw nostalgia. Ignore the haters. Embrace the new.
Afterwards, when I sat down to write a review I wouldn’t waste any time whatsoever on needlessly rehashing the various controversies related to this movie (e.g., the “all-female” thing, the “there are too many reboots/sequels” thing). Instead, the first line of my review would be “Is it funny?”, cutting straight to the most important question everyone should be asking. Forget those other Ghostbusters movies. Power past what this movie represents about the current state of Hollywood. Just let this freakin’ thing live or die on its own merits. Walk away thinking “Did it make me laugh?” and not “How does it compare to original Ghostbusters?”
I was partially motivated to take this approach after reading David Edelstein’s Ghostbusters review on Vulture.com. He lost me the moment he slipped into an overly long paragraph analyzing the greatness of the 1984 original. I already know the 1984 version is a classic. Tell me more about the 2016 one.
I wasn’t going to make that same mistake.
And then, boom, less than 5 minutes into the new movie I was flashing back to the 1984 Ghostbusters.
What the heck is wrong with me? Pull it together, man. Have some self-discipline.
I couldn’t help it, though. It’s all so remarkably similar. Before we meet any of the main characters, there’s an alternately spooky and amusing cold open introducing a ghost, and then the familiar Ghostbusters logo pops up on the screen while the opening chords of the Ghostbusters theme plays.
Guess what? This is a Ghostbusters movie. It’s useless trying to pretend it’s not. The iconic Ray Parker, Jr. song (or some variation on it) is ever present in the background. The story tracks a group of New York-based, paranormal-believing academics (all of them white-McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon) going into business together after being fired from their college jobs. Their trio becomes a quartet when a black, working class person (Jones) joins up. They all wear grey jumpsuits, ride around in a souped up hearse called Ecto-1 and lug around proton packs on their backs. Their first time catching a ghost happens in a very public space, they’re eventually called upon by the mayor (played by Andy Garcia) and in the finale they battle a skyscraper-sized villain. Many of the jokes are clearly improvised, and Slimer makes an appearance.
But it’s not a straight remake nor is it a sequel or even one of those weird “requels” (e.g., Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys) which pretend those sequels people didn’t like never happened. Instead, this is a franchise reboot. For example, McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon and Jones are all playing new characters (Abby Yates, Erin Gilbert, Jillian Holtzman and Patty Tolan respectively), not simply female versions of Venkman et al. However, this reboot is also jampacked with easter eggs from the prior movies, including cameos from all of the surviving Ghostbusters actors (minus Rick Moranis), all of whom play new characters.
So, yeah, if you remember Ghostbusters this new one will cause you to occasionally flash back to memorable moments from the original. If so, that might be to your detriment. If you don’t know or remember the Bill Murray-led movies, though, then this is the Ghostbusters for a new generation. If it ultimatley helps to make little girls feel empowered then who am I to argue against it?
Except, finally getting back to the question I wanted to ask at the start, this Ghostbusters, regardless of its various similarities and connections to the original, rarely made me laugh. In fact, I’d say Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, based on a script he co-wrote with The Heat‘s Katie Dippold, is a real mess of a movie, one which shockingly neutralizes the natural talents of Wiig and McCarthy, sticks Jones with racially outdated shtick and doesn’t totally know what to with McKinnon’s unique brand of crazy.
There is an emotional throughline of Wiig and McCarthy repairing their fractured friendship through their new gig as Ghostbusters, but the script completely loses track of it until it comes back out of nowhere in the finale. A conflict with the mayor’s office, who is already tracking the supernatural outbreaks with the help of Homeland Security and doesn’t want the Ghostbusters causing mass hysteria, similarly goes nowhere and offers no satisfying payoff. The dialogue is so dogged down by technical and science jargon, with no Bill Murray/Ernie Hudson-like figure offering a “What the hell are you talking about?” release valve, that it ends up feeling as if the gadgets and science in the movie have more development than the characters. And the clearly improv moments mostly features these masters of improv at their worst, riffing for far too long on tired bits like the meaning of the phrase “the cat’s out of the bag” or Patrick Swayze’s film legacy. Feig’s often puzzling editing does them no favors.
Plus, as is so often the way with modern Hollywood blockbusters there are significant main villain and third act problems. As io9 argued about the villain, who functions as an avatar for the film’s online critics:
We know he doesn’t like people and is trying to open a portal to another dimension. How he figured out to do this is fuzzy (he’s a genius, we’re told), his motivations aren’t particularly believable (he was mistreated as a child) and the plan itself doesn’t really make much sense (bring ghosts back to kill people). Rowan is a character literally placing obstacles in the way for the Ghostbusters, but he’s never a true threat, so there’s no tension.
And the film’s final third highlight’s Feig’s achilees heel: he’s simply not good at directing action scenes. Our heroes have to fend off a practical army of CGI ghosts in Times Square, a scenario which calls for a Captain America: Civil War airport fight scene-esque level of precision timing and choreography. Instead, Feig plotted out the sequence to follow the same repeating pattern: A Ghostbuster get attacked. Another Ghostbuster saves her. Then that Ghostbuster is attacked and the one she helped save now has to save her.
On paper, not a bad approach, an admirable attempt to inject story into the action (i.e., their actions illustrate how much they care for each other). In practice, though, this means a static shot of Kate McKinnon standing still and doing nothing until Leslie Jones yells offscreen, “Holtzy, look out!” Then McKinnon looks up at some CGI baddie, and cowers down before Jones saves her. There’s nothing particularly dynamic or cinematic about that. To Feig’s credit, he attempted to aid his actors by giving them something real to play off of, telling DenOfGeek most of the ghosts in the film were played by real people who were then augmented with CG. However, there’s precious little ingenuity on display.
This particular sequence only manages to soar when it breaks from its set pattern and has McKinnon mow down a row of ghosts with new sidearms extensions from her proton pack, looking every bit the part of a badass old western gunslinger. Standout moments like that are few and far between throughout the movie’s action scenes. The first use of a proton pack as well as a ghost possession scene all climax in confusingly choreographed ways, as if Feig and his editors couldn’t keep track of everything.
They only got it completely right during one scene, specifically when the Ghostbusters hit up a rock concert (as revealed in the trailers). The moment of them standing in a row and turning on their proton packs at the same time is an Avengers-caliber hero shot.
So action is not Feig’s strong suit. Oh, well. Surely he and Dippold compensated by offering interesting commentary on genre conventions and gender roles, like in The Heat and Spy (which Feig wrote on his own). Yeah, not so much. Their best effort is the way the mayor’s office initially discredits the Ghostbusters as being a group of sad, lonely women, and the presence of Chris Hemsworth as the dimwitted receptionist Kevin, although they exaggerate his stupidity to such an insanely cartoonish level you question how he even manages to put his pants on in the morning.
But I didn’t say this movie never made me laugh. If you put Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon and Jones in a room together, and rotate Hemsworth in and out of there you’re going to hear a couple of good jokes or at least some funny line readings. Most of these come from McKinnon, whose near-constant insane stare pulls focus in just about every scene. Her’s is a performance which promises more than it actually delivers, but it always holds your attention. Everyone else has a moment or two, but this is clearly McKinnon’s world and they’re just playing in it. However, more often than not the funny parts left me stonefaced or merely smirking.
The final moments of the movie actually gave me a hope though. There is an energy and team chemistry on display which is sorely lacking in the rest of the movie, suggesting the clear potential for a far superior sequel. For lack of a better, more spoilery description, it feels like you’re watching them be Ghostbusters for the first time. It’s a shame it took so long to get there.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This is a mess of a movie which lives and dies on how much you like the characters and what you think of their chemistry together. There are many cinematic sins on display, but you’ll forgive them if you get a real kick out of Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon and Jones. However, their talents can only compensate for so much, especially when the script doesn’t always serve them well.
THE ROTTENTOMATOES CONSENSUS
73% – Ghostbusters does an impressive job of standing on its own as a freewheeling, marvelously cast supernatural comedy — even if it can’t help but pale somewhat in comparison with the classic original.