Ghostbusters – A Review

15 Jul

ghostbustersA  couple of years ago the director Ivan Reitman made a film called Draft Day. It stars Kevin Costner as the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. It’s not a good film. It’s not a bad film either. It’s just another sports film starring Kevin Costner. A couple of those have done well in the past, so why not try? Sometimes I think that’s how studios greenlight certain movies: “I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be something. Stick this dude in it. Maybe we capture lightning in a bottle.”

Once in a while they do. Some half-baked idea goes through the studio pipeline without anybody really noticing and voila! you’ve got Casablanca, Rocky, Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption. Nobody expected these movies to do well, but somehow through the accidental nature of the collaborate medium known as Cinema, they have become beloved pieces of popular entertainment.

1984’s Ghostbusters (also, by the way, directed by Ivan Reitman) is a perfect example of this phenomena. It’s not a “great” film by any standard. But it is beloved. Over the years it has become a part of our cultural identity. Why it works is a mystery. Oftentimes the accidentally terrific films are more difficult to analyze than the classically great ones. (It’s rather easy to deconstruct Citizen Kane; more difficult to analyze Casablanca.) I’ve seen Ghostbusters many times and if I had to point to any one aspect of the movie that makes it work it’s that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously: the most dire moment in the film is the bizarre coupling of Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver. In some ways it embodies the slovenly disinterest of Bill Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman. 

Trying to recreate what Ghostbusters did (whatever that may be…) is impossible. You can’t reverse engineer accidental greatness. Just look at Ghostbusters 2, an empty shell compared to the original. Perhaps that’s why no studio has tried to reboot the series for over thirty years. It would take a bold, cocky, hubristic director to tackle the sacredness of the busting of ghosts.

And that bold, cocky, hubristic director is none other than…Paul Feig?

Wait, who?

Paul Feig. That’s who. Bridesmaids (2011), The Heat (2013), Spy (2015) and now Ghostbusters. Before that he spent over a decade as a TV director, helming episodes of The Office and Arrested Development.  And before that he created the show Freaks and Geeks. The guy’s got not just a solid track record, but has also been one of the few male directors who has gone out of his way to create leading roles for women.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room, something I must address before I look into the merits (or lack thereof) of the new film. As for the elephant, it is small, sad and pathetic, siting in alone in his room just waiting to be noticed. Some claimed that remaking this particular beloved film would ruin their childhoods. They lambasted the decision to cast four *gasp* women in the roles originally played by men. These people are trolls. They are few but loud. They do not speak for most of us. Most people don’t care about such trivialities. We are after all, living in an age where one of the hottest pieces of pop culture involves a man of Puerto Rican decent playing Alexander Hamilton. Trying to convince those bemoaning the – supposed – waning of male dominated culture that they are wrong is like trying to convince Trump supporters that they’re wrong. Then of course, those two groups do have a fairly large overlap.

The new Ghostbusters is not a remake of the original. It has a similar cold open, almost identical costumes and weaponry, some governmental assholes who won’t let our heroes do their jobs, and special effects that portray the paranormal as something more out of a fun house set than a Lovecraftian nightmare. Still, not a remake.

It’s as if a bunch of kids were playing a game with certain toys. These toys were then leant to a second group of kids. And those kids made their own game utilizing the same toys.  The games are similar because the toys are, but different where the imaginations of the two groups diverge.

I won’t go into a summary of plot points. If you’ve seen the original, you know the drill. Ghosts. Ghostbusters. Slime. Goofy music.

The characters in the new film do not correspond to those in the original (outside of the lone black character, here Leslie Jones, who joins the team late). Still, both Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are relegated to straight woman roles (similarly to Aykroyd and Ramis in the original), while Kate McKinnon is allowed to let her freak fly (reminiscent of Bill Murray). These four women are all excellent comedic actresses on their own. In concert, however, they are like a finely-tuned string quartet.

If there were a formula – or say part of a formula – that could be used to create a successful re-imagining of Ghostbusters it would be just that: character interaction and dynamic. It’s very easy for four comedic actors (or actresses) to be their individual selves on screen. Take one of those awful Adam Sandler/David Spade/Rob Schneider movies and that’s what you have – individuals doing their individual shtick. Not here. Kate McKinnon may be weird (okay, really really weird), but her weirdness works within the context of the group dynamic.  

While it’s impossible for anyone who loves the original Ghostbusters to not compare the two films, the 2016 version should be evaluated on its own merits. At times, however, this becomes difficult. At its best, the new version is fast, funny, almost exhausting in its pace. Then we get the cameos. None of them are egregious, but they are too much in the mold of “Chewbacca in Revenge of the Sith.” It’s fan service at the price of solid storytelling.  This movie works on its own and does not need to overly-reference its predecessor.

I will now say something a bit sacrilegious: this Ghostbusters is funnier than the original. That doesn’t mean that it’s better than the 1984 version, just that it is funnier. The best of this humor stems from McKinnon, who is a revelation. She’s not just funny; she’s weird. And weirdly funny. But she also knows she’s weird, and this keeps her character grounded just enough so she doesn’t hijack the film. Second to her is Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the ladies’ beautifully inept receptionist. Known mostly as Thor from the Marvel universe, Hemsworth displays some old school comedic gifts here.  (Please stay for the closing credits to see his dance moves.)

The film can be too broad at times, but this is the style of most contemporary big budget comedies. There is little room for dry wit. Similarly, while I don’t find the special effects to be overindulgent, I was never particularly enthralled with the action scenes. They feel too hurried, as if Feig can’t wait to get back to the four ladies bantering. Which is fine: the film thrives more on banter than on thrills. Except for a few moments later in the film that felt like dead air, much of Ghostbusters is a clinic on perfectly executed comedy.

Paul Feig is a smart director, but even more he’s a caring one. He doesn’t make mean films. He makes ones that border on charming (even if a character is pooping in the middle of the street it seems kind of sweet). The Heat may be one of the most underrated films of the last few years, and Bridesmaids will probably hold up for years to come.  Ghostbusters has an effervescence and charm, a light playfulness that had me smiling throughout (and for about an hour afterwards). And unlike his one-time collaborator, Judd Apatow, Feig is a far stricter editor: Ghostbusters is a full half hour shorter than Trainwreck, and quite a bit funnier.

Nothing can be the original. But the Ghostbusters made in 1984 isn’t some holy work that must be protected solemnly by the Knights of the Virgins Living in Mom and Dad’s Basement. The new film is funny, sweet, exciting, and slimy. That doesn’t lessen the power of the original film. Rather, it demonstrates how that film’s template still works. Funny people, some Class 4 Floating Torsos, NYC, and the willingness to be weird make for a fun summer ride.

 

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