Cast: Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong
Director: Paul Feig
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In our fractured, divided America where homophobia, racism, sexism, and outright ignorance is hidden under the guise of Internet anonymity, there’s a real sense that the new Paul Feig-directed Ghostbusters has to in many ways prove all of the trolling haters wrong by being better than simply average. Unfortunately, though the film proves something that shouldn’t have to be proven; that women can carry a big budget Hollywood vehicle by being smart, likeable, funny, and kicking ass, it remains an overwhelmingly average movie.
The unwillingness for Feig and co-writer Kate Dippold to wrestle themselves away from their reverence for the original property as well as misguided attempts at competing with other effects-heavy summer blockbusters, means that Ghostbusters can never truly be it’s own thing. Understandable, of course, given the iconic nature of the franchise, but disappointing in that they have compiled a winning cast and then given them an unfocused script with very little wiggle room to upend expectations. However, what works here is ironically the very thing the film was being ruthlessly attacked for sight unseen; as in the four women making up the ghostbusting team all take one-dimensional “types” and imbue them with distinct personalities and varying comedic sensibilities. The material that doesn’t quite gel; pacing, plot momentum, anything involving horror/comedy action, are simply things which are not Feig’s strong suit. This is a guy who excels in Freaks and Geeks/ Bridesmaids mode; putting a group of talented actors in rooms together and letting them riff. The best moments in Ghostbusters conjure that kind of micro-scale vibe of just hanging with these characters, irrespective of the plot or where the movie eventually has to go.
In a way, these early scenes almost play like a comfy Netflix Original comedy; with Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones cramming together their disparate comedic styles into one unwieldy brew and creating a gently amusing chemistry which works on it’s own terms. In that sense, the picture’s first half mirrors the air of relaxed, deadpan charm of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original. However, Feig’s film isn’t content with simply aping a vibe, but also feels it necessary to rehash plot points and story structure from the original. Worst of all are the pandering cameo appearances which come fast and often, grinding the film’s comedic possibilities to a screeching halt. The plot involves paranormal scientists Erin (Wiig), Abby (McCarthy), and Holtzmann (McKinnon), teaming up with spunky MTA worker Patty (Jones) to thwart the diabolical plan of Rowan (Neil Casey), a picked upon hotel employee who hopes to unleash an army of undead ghouls and ghosts from a portal onto the unsuspecting population of New York City. There’s a dim-witted secretary (Chris Hemsworth, gamely spoofing his image) who joins the crew, as well as the swarmy mayor (Andy Garcia) and press correspondent (Cecily Strong), both of whom want to keep all the ghost-busting out of the media spotlight by enlisting the help of the government.
Even giving the plot a cursory glance is foolish, since Ghostbusters lives or dies on its casting, and it’s here where Feig’s movie works like well-oiled slime. Had the film just been about the formulation of the team, their interactions, and the designing of paranormal-hunting technology in order to stop the threat, it could have elevated things into the realm of a slapdash comedy classic. However, since Feig and company feel the need to cram their nostalgic worship of the original property down our throats, we also must suffer through sequences like one set at an Ozzy Osbourne rock concert; a lame idea executed in a lame way, concluding with an even lamer cameo punchline which feels desperately out of touch. This need for winking references and celebrity cameos continues throughout, with the only reason for their existence being to seemingly prime audience applause. It’s the worst kind of pandering and nearly derails the entire film.
Meanwhile, the action-heavy third act, which features dozens of brightly colored ghosts floating throughout the streets of New York City, gets away from the improvisational nature of the first half and reduces most of the dialogue to expository technobabble. Only McKinnon, who must have read the script and realized instantly she was playing a blank slate of a character, takes all the techno-nerd speak and makes it entertaining simply by doing weird voices and mugging in the background of scenes. It will probably be a divisive performance, but it’s clearly the most interesting because it dares to be odd and alienating, relying not on jokes or punchlines, but on a kind of jazzy improv style which seems out of step with the other performers. Ultimately, since the finale relies so much on state of the art special effects and action, and since Feig doesn’t quite have a handle on this kind of thing; (one can imagine someone like, say Edgar Wright having a field day here), Ghostbusters becomes just another mediocre version of a CGI-enhanced summer tent pole where the intimacy of the characters become dwarfed by the “bigness” of the supernatural destruction.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking angle here isn’t an all-female version of this property, but rather, the way the villain is utilized to comment on male-driven hubris gone awry. As a character, Rowan isn’t all that dissimilar from Erin and Abby; all three were belittled and picked on at various points in their lives, and all three exhibit geek-like tendencies. However, whereas the two women take this social ridicule and channel it into ghost-busting and female friendship, Rowan lashes out at the world by punishing those who have rejected him. This is a very specific, very male response. How many mass shooters historically, for instance, have been women? Though Feig’s movie doesn’t make this interpretation obvious in a political way, there’s a streak of male-centered delusion possessing the bad guy here which speaks quite urgently to the different ways gender plays into behavioral responses. At it’s best, Ghostbusters posits a world made more balanced and sane by the existence of women leading the way, and that’s something we should all get behind.