Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones
Directed by: Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”)
Written by: Katie Dippold (“The Heat”) and Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”)
“’Ain’t no bitches gonna bust no ghosts,” intones bewildered and hurt paranormal-hobbyist-turned-physicist-turned-“Ghostbuster”-2.0 Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), reading aloud a reaction to a YouTube video of her team’s extra-normal exploits. It’s a line that elicits a knowing, involuntary bark of a laugh, not least because it’s an example of art not so much imitating life, but rather faithfully — if painfully — reporting it.
Following an historically inauspicious trailer reception (it’s the “most disliked” movie trailer in YouTube’s decade-plus of existence), and the widespread denunciation of that reception as virulently sexist, and the repudiation of that denunciation by commenters claiming defense of a treasured classic, and so on — all months before the first press or preview screening — Paul Feig’s female-fronted “Ghostbusters” reboot could be forgiven for rolling into theaters this week with a sizable spectral chip on its wearied shoulder.
To wit: If the aforementioned “bust no ghosts” scene is the most pointed of the film’s fourth-wall-chipping glances at its own pre-detractors, it may not be the only one. Subtle (or not-so-) moments in which a male villain taunts our heroes (or heroines?) for “shooting like girls” or opines that they’re late to a showdown because (1) women “always” are and (2) they probably couldn’t pick out the right coveralls to wear, or Cecily Strong’s purposeful emphasis, as a tight-smiling mayoral assistant, in complaining about “these women” are all about as jarring and uncomfortable as they sound, but skate by(?) as paper-thin, self-aware, psuedo-Swiftian satire.
Which assessment brings us more directly to the rightful point: the film. Is it good? Is it funny? How does it fare, pushing distractions and comparisons aside?
Well, that depends.
Structurally (and in many other ways, as it turns out), we’re in strikingly familiar territory — on paper, at least. Wiig’s Gilbert is an about-to-be-tenured professor at Columbia University whose enthusiastic/eccentric/scientific-genius former colleague Abby Yates (McCarthy, introduced sporting decidedly Stanz-ian headgear) is on the verge of a breakthrough in super-spooky studies, assisted by the even-more-enthusiastic/eccentric/scientific-genius-y Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). When Gilbert’s association with Yates leads to a chain of events that outs her as a supernatural-believer to her no-nonsense dean (the wonderful Charles Dance, in what sadly amounts to a cameo) and leaves all three women out of a job, she joins forces with Yates, Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan (Jones), a subway worker with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City architecture and history, to catch and study incorporeal entities — and, ultimately, save the city from a neon ghostly apocalypse.
The talent here assembled is considerable: Wiig and McCarthy are proven and reliable comedic tentpoles; “Freaks and Geeks” creator Feig has delivered with female-led hits “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” and the uproarious and tremendously fun “Spy;” McKinnon, Jones, and Strong are breakout “SNL” stars (McKinnon and Strong, in particular, are capable of unleashing a dizzying array of simultaneously realistic and gut-busting characters; expect big things from them). Hemsworth is undeniably winning (if perplexingly written) as a brick-stupid receptionist, and even Andy Garcia shows up to fill out a small role as an unapologetic rat-sleazehole of a mayor. The ingredients are present, then, for these Ghostbusters to stride confidently in a new direction all their own, exorcising the hulking and formidable spectre of their phantom-fighting forebears.
One significant problem, it turns out, lies precisely in the film’s own reluctance to do just that, instead allowing said spectre to loom unavoidably overhead like a monstrous, anthropomorphic, sailor-suited partial S’more. That is to say, “Ghostbusters” (2016) invests so very much time and energy nodding to and hammer-winking at “Ghostbusters” (1984) in so very many multifarious ways (plot points, art design/visual references, locations, audio cues, déjà-vu-ish characters, a glut of cameos, lines lines lines lines lines) that it does itself a number of great disservices. Not only does this significant a volume of repeated hat-tips (literally, repeated: Annie Potts’s beloved “Ghostbusters, whaddaya want?” squawk is quoted not once, but twice) constantly pull its audience out of the story to remind us that we’re watching a movie (and a contentious remake, at that), not only does it refuse to allow us to to forget the original (and, in fact, all-but-force us to compare the two), but, arguably most damaging of all, it causes the film itself to seem strangely insecure — almost as if, for all the filmmakers’ railing against and dismissal of cage-rattling trolls and hatescream fanboys, they don’t ultimately feel worthy of the mantle without concerted pandering or appeasement. It’s like Cary Elwes’s pitiable-but-understandable attempt at Jim Carrey’s “The Claw” in “Liar, Liar” — no one wants that, man. Just be yourself.
That may seem uncharitable. I apologize, if so. The truth is, I’m frustrated, because the thing could have worked. If this were the film’s only pervasive misstep, Feig and co. might’ve pulled it off — and what a success it would have been.
Let’s pause, though. Because here’s where the “that depends” part comes in.
The (other) truth is: If you’re a child aged 9-14, or if you haven’t seen or aren’t especially fond of or aren’t looking for a tonal successor to the seminal 1984 hit, chances are good you’ll like this “Ghostbusters” very much. You might, in fact, love it. That isn’t a dig. It’s a sincere distinction. This film, with its bright colors, lighter tone, and somewhat scaled-back scares, feels a bit more like a kids’ movie than the original — or even like “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon I very much enjoyed as a kid (I dug Filmation’s, too). No demon dogs, no monster-hands bursting from the recliner, no eidolic Ackroyd-fellating. Some of the inconsistencies in the universe (particularly those presented by the panoply of cameos — a nod to one character suggests we’re in the original Ghostbusterverse, while other actors are clearly new characters and one seems to have a foot in both) or departures in tone (’84 was quirky-but-subtle, and, though ghosts feature prominently, set in an otherwise “real” world; ’16 presents us with a parade of sketch-comedy characters [and there’s no telling what dimension spawned Hemsworth’s absurdly airheaded Kevin]) or issues with pacing or writing or chemistry or character or performance (a heavier premium on “funny” or “wacky” than “convincing” or “deep”) may not bother a younger viewer, and some of these may not bother an older viewer not beholden to cockle-warming memories of Peter/Ray/Egon/Winston. It is, in some ways, a “fresh” take. Kind of. When it isn’t trying desperately not to be.
And that, finally, is the death-knell. Or is it? On the one hand, you’ve got an exciting team of comedic performers seemingly hamstrung by a script that seems more interested in dutifully bowing to its elders every five pages than in making its own mark, and a film whose first cut was reportedly four hours and 15 minutes (which is palpable, in retrospect). On the other hand, you’ve got that magical viral photo of Kristen Wiig, clasping hands with a positively beaming young girl in a Ghostbusters outfit while another, identically attired down to the unutterably joyous expression, looks on. And that’s when you can’t help but think: “Huh — maybe my opinion isn’t the one that really matters here.”