Friday, July 15, 2016

But at least they didn't bring Harold Ramis back as a CGI ghost, even though you can be completely certain that somebody wanted to


Not the slightest patch on the original, and that's mostly okay, since that's not one of the film's apparent goals, anyway.

Directed by Paul Feig
Written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig
With Kristen Wiig (Dr. Erin Gilbert), Melissa McCarthy (Dr. Abigail Yates), Kate McKinnon (Dr. Jillian Holtzmann), Leslie Jones (Patty Tolan), Chris Hemsworth (Kevin), Neil Casey (Rowan North), and the principal cast of the original Ghostbusters (Several Obscene, Filmbreaking Cameos)

Spoiler alert: mild

Is there any subject this season more tedious than the new Ghostbusters?  I honestly and truly doubt it, and most of the literal millions of words devoted to the thing, before it even came out, can be boiled down without any loss of signal to the following FAQ:

Was a remake of the original Ghostbusters a good idea?  Of course not.  Are you high?

Did that have anything to do with deciding to remake it with a gender-swapped cast?  No, and actually that made it ever-so-slightly more interesting, even if it is also a classic premise of the lazy fan fiction which the new Ghostbusters could have quite easily resembled, and in some respects does.

Be that as it may, was the reaction to this remake born of a certain misogynistic streak?  Well, given the far fainter outcries for the litany of misconceived remakes that have recently graced our screens, the answer to that one is "duh"—and yet it really does pay to remember that there is essentially not one single person on Earth (probably including Paul Verhoeven) who cares about Total Recall or Robocop even half as much as they care about the original Ghostbusters, which is on the short list of the most-beloved movies of all time.

So is it deeply unfair that this one particular film is thus required to bear the weight of the very concept of "female comedians actually headlining a movie," something one doubts any single movie could ever do?  Kid, I think you just identified the single most tedious thing about this conversation.

Well, that aside, was there ever any good reason to expect director Paul Feig to deliver so much as a tolerable remake of the original Ghostbusters?  100% absolutely not.  Speaking purely for myself, I think you could throw a dart at a D.G.A. meeting, and as long you didn't straight-up kill whomever it hit, I would have been more excited to hear that they were remaking Ghostbusters instead.  Even if you got them in the brain.

Do people actually still care about James Rolfe?  Apparently so!  Meanwhile, I could've been making bomb threats here, and it's very possible no one would have even noticed.  Maybe I should start, because I could use the attention.

So is this mostly-unwanted remake any good?  Sure.

Well, it's entertaining, anyway, and especially if you arrive with a certain set of expectations: namely, that no one was even trying to make a movie like the original Ghostbusters, except to the extent that the new Ghostbusters uses the premise of the original, co-opts its iconography without a complete understanding of why it was cool, and retreads the basic form of its plot.  Instead, consider it a remake of Ghostbusters 2.  Then you'll enter the theater with the right attitude.

In fact, it's pretty clear that no one was under the impression that what they were making was ever going to be in the same league as Ghostbusters '84—and, maybe a little counterintuively, this gives the new Ghostbusters a breezy weightlessness that renders it almost totally inoffensive.  Almost: the major exception, and it is a doozy, is when it brazenly references the original, in ways that are sometimes kind of clever (Bill Murray appears as a briefly-seen ghost debunker), but are more often just heavingly unbearable (Dan Akroyd should have a bottle of tequila thrown at his head for deigning to slur out the line "I ain't afraid of no ghost," and when the very best idea you came up with to cram the fucking Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man into your movie was as the ghost of a parade float—and please, let me repeat that, there are ghosts of parade floats in this film—you clearly ought to reevaluate your commitment to featuring the monster in the first place, and maybe consider, just for one fucking moment, that the image of the Marshmallow Man, no matter how iconic, came from such a terrifically specific place within the original Ghostbusters' screenplay that it cannot be replicated, and obviously no one should have ever tried).

The plot itself is a remix: Dr. Erin Gilbert, currently a physicist at Columbia and formerly a goofy parapsychologist, discovers that her ex-friend and former partner-in-pseudoscience, Dr. Abby Yates, has been hawking their humiliating textbook on ghosts on Amazon, thanks to a haunting victim who's recently shown up asking for Gilbert's expertise.  Marching down to Yates' much shittier college to confront her and her new lab partner, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, Gilbert is roped into actually investigating the alleged paranormal disturbance; and, because this is Ghostbusters, the ghost is very, very real.  Unfortunately, Gilbert's extracurricular activity is revealed to her supervisor (Charles Dance, of all people), and she's kicked off the campus for being weird.  And so, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, Gilbert teams up with Yates and Holtzclaw to bust some danged ghosts.  They start a ghost extermination business; hire a secretary; and they even manage to pick up the Black Working-Class Ghostbuster, Patty Tolan, with slightly more narrative elegance than they did in the original (although the lack of elegance is exactly why it's funny in the original).  Soon enough, they uncover a plot undertaken by Rowan North, a janitor at a Manhattan hotel and the film's misanthropic nerd villain, who seeks to release the restless souls of the dead upon New York.  This shall somehow grant him great power; power roughly equivalent, I'd say, to that of a Mesopotamian god.

Hooray for originality!

It tracks more-or-less with the original, then; and, indeed, the parts where this new Ghostbusters zigs instead of zags arrive with flop sweat.  Take the reaction of the authorities to the Ghostbusters: it's the precise opposite of how they reacted in the original, but it critically depends on you having already seen the original to understand that this is a joke.

Where this Ghostbusters becomes distinct is in the tone.  And that's where the film's highly circumscribed ambitions, evinced by Feig and Katie Dippold's screenplay, actually turn out to be the movie's secret weapon.  Allow me to be stupidly reductive for the sake of brevity: the new Ghostbusters is a comedy—and the old Ghostbusters was not.

To unpack that just a little bit, before you think I'm insane: obviously, the old Ghostbusters is extraordinarily funny, and it's entirely populated by comedians doing shtick.  But its signal strength—its sweetest grace—is that the movie rarely acts like it knows it's funny.  It's one of the most accomplished balancing acts of all time: Ghostbusters '84 is a sci-fi/horror film before it's anything else.  It so rarely condescends to its material that even when the material offers up an apocalypse in the form of a giant freaking marshmallow, the thing is actually almost scary, staged like a real threat and with legitimate, noticeable awe.

As for the new Ghostbusters?  It shoots its Stay Puft analogue in the crotch with a proton gun.  And its extras can't even manage to be terrified of demons, because it's 2016, and we need a Goddamned selfie joke.  That's swell.

What we have, then, is unabashed slapstick.  Every single character is pitched at least as high as Rick Moranis' dimwitted accountant.  Most of them are pitched even higher than that.  And it's ironic that the one member of the cast who comes closest to stealing the whole show is, well, a dude—Chris Hemsworth, as the beefcake receptionist so impossibly stupid he tries, twice, to reach through the glass of an aquarium, or, as he describes it, "a submarine for fish."  (Then, thanks to a possession subplot, he gets to play eeeevil too.)  The quasi-subversive sexism bound up in Hemsworth's poor Kevin is both delightful and grotesque; myself, I elect to embrace it, because problematizing light entertainment is getting slightly out of hand, even if I surely wouldn't like to see it done a hundred more times.


Then again, he has to be this dumb in order to serve as comic relief to these particular Ghostbusters, since they're mostly just cobbled-together collections of running jokes themselves.  Not that the first film hit much more than two dimensions for its characters; but it grounded its weird misfits in something more solid than this one does.  It also didn't tend to distract its scientists with what I think amounts to about five aggregate minutes of complaining to delivery boys about their wonton soup.

But, happily, Ghostbusters '16 is pretty damned funny after all—despite all the problems Feig inflicts with his generally-unfunny directorial personality.  So: do jokes have a tendency to die on screen and keep dying while you fidget uncomfortably, or perhaps go to the bathroom and miss key exposition?  You bet your fucking life they do.  (The maddening thing is that this is still the quickest pace Feig has ever kept, which means you have to give him credit for listening to the criticism, making incremental improvements, and tightening up the flow of his movies to the point where even at his worst he's not eagerly destroying his own comedy here.)  In a dark miracle, the most grating technique in Ghostbusters isn't the semi-improvisational "have your actors keep riffing on a single gag forever, even repeating what the other one just said over and over if necessary, until one of the performers finally breaks character, and then yell cut" style that's defined the very lowest moments of Feig's comedy career.

Instead, it's the positive addiction that Feig (and Dippold) appear to have to the anticlimax—you can almost hear the Sad Trombone.  (The trick becomes so dully expected that when the gals actually put the clues together in the form of a spiritual map of Manhattan, and it turns out their crazy theory was right rather than a feint toward nothing, you're relieved far out of proportion to the scene itself that Feig can actually manage to take his ongoing plot seriously for five full seconds at a time.)

Meanwhile, the metafictional veneer of its basement-dwelling villain cannot possibly go unnoticed, even momentarily; in fact, it's mildly distracting, since you wind up thinking about how Feig and Dippold anticipated the ugly reaction to their movie, and wrote their "take that" preemptively.  Fair enough as far as it goes; but you're preaching to the choir that bought their ticket.

That's a lot of criticism; you'd guess I hated it.  But for the most part, it's pure cotton candy, and I like cotton candy.  The actors pitch headlong into their pseudo-characters and, at least in Kate McKinnon's case, she comes right out the other side as a bolt of truly glorious cartoon hyperactivity, complete with endearingly stupid hair and an obsession with science that's essentially, and aggressively, sexual.  Hell, the whole movie's kind of like this; but the amalgamation of tics and weirdnesses that constitutes McKinnon's Holtzmann is pretty close to perfect.  (Most everyone is good, but she's Hemsworth's closest competition.)

It looks like cotton candy, too: the action sequences may get spastic and increasingly-dull, but they are colorful, and so Ghostbusters is never quite unpleasant to look at, no matter how clear it is that this putatively-kinetic fantasy film has been framed and cut by a director who has never once been forced to confront what a powerfully mediocre action stylist he actually is.

So what I've described is a near-complete frivolity, one devoted primarily to lackadaisical but endearing sitcom-style humor, and elevated that crucial little bit by a pair of genuinely batshit characters whose performers knock them completely off their hinges.  Otherwise, Ghostbusters smacks of the wrong people behind the camera, plainly not even trying to do the best job they could—although in Feig's case, it is the best movie he's ever made.  No: I enjoyed myself for a couple of hours.  That's all you can ask from any movie.  Yet I feel that all I can do is damn it with this faint praise—for Ghostbusters '16 only ever steps out of great shadow it stands in by abandoning everything that made the movie that casts that shadow special.  That's fine; but I'll forget the whole thing by tomorrow.

Score:  6/10


  1. I come at this from a much different angle, not being TOO zealous of a fan of the original Ghostbusters, having absolutely zero nostalgia for it, but we came to most of the same conclusions, I think. (My review is out tomorrow, I've decided to take weekends off recently)

    I actually LIKE Paul Feig's comedies, though I wholeheartedly agree his loosey goosey run times lets a lot of jokes wither and die on the vine. But there's so many moments that I DO like that I can ignore them.

    The one unequivocally great thing about Ghosbusters being out is that now people can finally shut up about it.

    1. Feig's 2 and 2, now, so I should probably let up on the hate: Spy was good and Ghostbusters were good. Bridesmaids is only mildly bad, in that I find it mostly boring and unfunny, but not painfully bad. The problem is The Heat, which I absolutely despise; deeply offensive and direly unfunny, it may be the actual worst movie of 2013, but I didn't watch it till a couple years later, so it didn't make my bottom ten list. I mean, sure, they've made plenty of excellent movies about fascist cops; but Dirty Harry wasn't a comedy.

      Looking forward to seeing your take, B!