Like the 1984 supernatural comedy Ghostbusters, the 2016 remake is a plodding effects-heavy silly spectacle strung along a rickety thin plot. The jokes aren’t particularly funny. The ghosts aren’t particularly scary. And the story isn’t compelling. The whole enterprise rests entirely on the charms of its comedian cast. In both cases, this allows for a certain eccentric personality that keeps it from being a total waste. The original had its sarcastic Bill Murray, technical Harold Ramis, eager Dan Aykroyd, and helpful Ernie Hudson banding together to start a small business as ghost catchers. Now there’s a reluctant Kristen Wiig, earnest Melissa McCarthy, loopy Kate McKinnon, and capable Leslie Jones putting together a ghost busting team. They want to prove their research isn’t bunk, and that they can do some good removing New York City’s pesky hauntings. Because the cast is likable and game, throwing themselves into the swirling effects work with some sense of commitment and chemistry, it’s not too bad.
The run up to the movie’s release was marred by sight-unseen sexist anger from guys who objected to women in the ghostbusting business, followed by an opposing contingent who felt the best way to combat that nonsensical rage was to claim seeing the movie to be a sort of feminist duty. (Hopefully all right-thinking people know women can be ghostbusters; and you don’t need to buy this particular movie ticket to prove you believe in gender equality, despite its undeniably productive symbolic value.) In retrospect, the movie itself is hardly worth the foofaraw. Watching it I was neither entertained nor annoyed. I was, in fact, the closest to no thoughts at all as possible. Technically a movie, a great deal of obvious cost and effort went into making it a shiny, amiable, blockbuster bauble. It’s not a good movie, but it’s certainly no worse than the original, sparks of inspiration duly served up in a bland container. There are good intentions and good will on the part of director Paul Feig, co-writing with his The Heat screenwriter Kate Dippold, beholden to the idea of what a Ghostbusters should be. It hits the same beats, invites in many of the same spirits, and plays it safe. There’s an overwhelming feeling of been there, done that, despite the refreshed surface details.
Tasked with reviving a long-dormant property important to Sony’s bottom line, Feig, who has steadily been accruing a good run of big screen comedy, is beholden to the dictates of big, bland studio product. He doesn’t have the freedom to be as loose and observationally character driven as his Bridesmaids or as sharply pointed a gender studies genre critique as his Spy. So it feels emptier than we know he was, at least in theory, capable of making it, like it’s a fresh take sloppily shoved into stale packaging. But at least he is allowed to give his cast enough room to make it their own. Wiig and McCarthy nicely underplay sweet old friends who reconnect over their love of the supernatural. McKinnon is a continual delight as a loose-limbed weirdo fawning over the ghostly happenings and her oddball tech. (Whether she’s dancing to DeBarge or licking her weapons, every cutaway to her is worth a smile.) And Jones makes the most out of an NYC history buff, good for pointing out a subway spirit is of one the earliest criminals to be electrocuted in the city. (“It took so much electricity they said, forget it, just shoot him.”) They wring some small laughs out of the dead air.
To the extent this Ghostbusters is a pleasure to watch it’s thanks to these four women, plus Chris Hemsworth as their incredibly dim hunky secretary so dumb he plugs his eyes when he hears a loud noise. (That’s the movie’s one smart commentary on gender roles in these kinds of movies, giving women the center stage while the token man is there to be stupid and objectified.) Otherwise the movie’s a slog through repetitive and flatly deployed hauntings at which the women show up, take care of business, and then leave deflated when the mayor’s office routinely decries them as fakes. Then there’s an endless CG climax with swirling ectoplasm and a snarling underwritten villain. It’s business as usual. Every scene is too short – no good build to the comic rhythms or scares’ staging, with the hammering editing stepping on most punchlines – and yet the whole movie is too long. There’s a push-pull between the new and old (several cameos from original cast members stop the action cold), the comedy and horror, the grinding predictable plot and the thwarted desire to turn into a loose hangout with funny people. It never resolves these tensions, leaving the movie off-balance and never wholly satisfying. The women are great. The movie is not. A more radical reimagining was in order.