Ghostbusters: Uninspired Femme-Driven Reboot, Haunted by the Original, Struggling for Identity

ghostbusters_7The eagerly-awaited, controversial-even-before-it-opened, Ghostbusters offers a lot of cheerfully silly fun and some undeniable visual pleasures, but the movie as a whole is thematically uninspired and immediately disposable.

Grade: B- (** out of *****)

Released 32 years after the original, which was directed by Ivan Reitman, hit theaters, this Ghostbusters is even more of a high-concept picture than the1984 comedy. Walking a fine line between paying tribute to the first film and pleasing fans on the one hand and establishing its own distinct identity, Ghostbusters goes out of its way not to mess up too much with the central idea.

ghostbusters_6It’s like a thesis film, setting out to prove that women can be just as funny as men, as if we did not know, and that female camaraderie is just a viable proposition as male camaraderie. All that’s missing is a song like “Anything you can do, I can do better….”

Though utterly forgettable, this Ghostbusters is not utterly dismissible. The filmmakers—Paul Feig and co-writer Kathy Dippold–deserve credit for going out of their way to justify the making an all-female comedy and then deliver the goods expected of that premise and promise. (I learned from an interview with the director that the remake was actually initiated by Reitman—see home page)

End result is a sharply uneven comedy, which begins well but does not really bring a fresh take, or a new perspective to the supernatural comedy. To be fair, no one goes expects a remake like Ghostbusters to have an intriguing or even busy plot.

It’s interesting that most critics and commentators cling to the original Reitman comedy, which is a cult movie admired by critics and viewers alike—according to Rotten Tomatoes, it has a very high score, 95 percent of positive reviews. They also mention the 1986 cartoonish version, “The Real Ghostbusters.” However, most critic disregard the remake, made in 1989, five years after the original, which was quite disappointing, dividing reviewers right in the middle.

ghostbusters_2Put in perspective, the first movie was a triumph of context and casting. It benefited from its then novel comedic concept (in the early 1980s) and spirited casting of Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and best of all Bill Murray, all at the prime of their talents. The 1984 film also became memorable for Ray Parker Jr.’s goofy yet catchy theme song: “Who you gonna call?”

 

To be fair, in moments, this Ghostbusters is funnier (in the first hour, there’s a stream of goofy vibes) and scarier (due to special effects that were not available back then). But the key questions to be asked are: How funny are the old/new characters when their gender is reversed? How hilarious are the settings and situations in which the quartet of femmes exist and operate?

ghostbusters_3_wiigUnless you live on another planet, by now you now that the quartet is composed of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, all talented actresses and comediennes. The fifth major character, the cute secretary Kevin, also represents gender-swapping as he is played by the big and muscled actor Chris Hemsworth, best known for Thor.

But Feig has hard time, more as a co-writer than as a director, to find the right formula that would blend effectively the conventions of at least four genres, comedy, action-adventure, sci-fi, and fantasy. Moreover, the shadow of the 1984 looms so large over this picture that it’s practically haunted by it.

There are some inspiring moments, as, for example, when a representative from the Mayor’s office (Cecily Strong) is trying to keep things under control by using the ghostbusters’ gender to discredit them as “incredibly sad, lonely women.”  And in this, and other moments, it’s impossible not to think of the backlash by male fans before the movie had even been shown.

ghostbusters_4_mccarthyThe most disappointing thing about this movie is the lack of a clear (let alone smart) feminist spin on the story or characters, all of which are more or less modeled on the original male creators.  They are more like variations of the figures that the men had played in the 1984 film, instead of being freshly modeled individual characters worthy in their own right.

 

Moreover, while each of the four actresses has proven herself to be a gifted comedienne in other vehicles, there is no particularly strong chemistry among the four leads, which is strange considering that they are supposed to function as a well-coordinated unit and that some of them share overlapping backstories that go decades back.

Feig is known to be a democratic writer and director, trying to give each actress something interesting to do or to say. Even so, some actresses manage to overcome the limitations of the conceptual writing.

ghostbusters_5McCarthy, the most bankable actress in the quartet, puts her expectedly aggressive, irreverent spin as Abby, the science nerd, but in the end, her performance (perhaps a function of overexposure–she makes two comedies a year) is too familiar, largely composed of shticks we have seen before.

Wiig’s Erin is introduced as a stiff academic who has distanced herself from her early paranormal activity, and it takes too long for her to become zany when her starchy suit makes her the first to get slimed.

I think of the four, Kate McKinnon fares the best, as eccentric engineer Jillian Holtzmann, delivering her off-kilter lines  in a fresh way, and showing inventiveness in constructing the team’s anti-ghost gadgets, including some new improved gizmos.

Leslie Jones, playing a variation of a streetwise stereotype, is Patty Tolan, a transit worker, who brings her expert knowledge of New York and her funeral-director uncle’s hearse to the job.

But thematically, the film’s central friendship between Melissa McCarthy’s Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig’s Erin Gilbert, is not sufficiently well developed, and the two actress do not show the depth of a bond that had originated in their high school days, and is now rekindled under different circumstances.

I mentioned these factors, because what made the 1984 movie special was the strong rapport among the four main characters, each of which had a distinctive role to play, which enabled him to show his specialty and expertise.  Bill Murray, already an expert of deadpan drollery, was the shining star of the quartet, but we enjoyed seeing him interact–in different ways–with each of his buddies, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Hudson.  And we also enjoyed seeing the four as a team and how they perceive each new crisis situation is a fresh way.

As noted earlier, Ghostbusters is noisy, busy, messy, overlong (close to full two hours), and only sporadically funny.  However, as summer fare goes, especially this season, you will have fun watching it, especially if you go with lower expectations, and put aside the glory and cult status of the 1984 picture.

Though the movie has not opened yet to the lay public, which will determine its fate, it’s already become a cultural phenomenon, going beyond the realm of cinema, which may explain why so many critics and commentators relate to it not just as a movie–and a fluffy summer movie at that–but also (or mainly) as a statement about the role and politics of gender–on screen and off.