It’s hard to review any movie without dipping your toe into politics, but how has it got the point that a fuckin’ Ghostbusters remake is one of the most contentious films of the year? Maybe you can credit it to the mounting importance of modern fandom – as I just did – but whatever the explanation, it’s resulted in a CGI-heavy, lightweight horror comedy shouldering the brunt of contemporary discourse around gender representation in pop culture and fan toxicity.
So what’s the actual film like? Well, if you want to love it – and, as J. Rosenfield identified in an insightful piece on “performative wokeness”, there are almost as many people who want to love the film, sight unseen, as those who already hate it – there’s plenty to love about it. Equally, if you’re the type to lurk around social media spewing misogynist bile, there’s enough unevenness here to support your case for the film’s turpitude.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
First of all, it engages intelligently with the expectations of reimagining such a beloved film, even offering pointed commentary on the controversy that has consumed the film. Part of that is deliberate, with director Paul Feig reshooting scene(s) to address the topic head-on; at one point our four new Ghostbusters (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon) gather around to read disparaging YouTube comments. Part of it is coincidental, with the film’s villain – Neil Casey as a “sad, pale” social outcast – embodying all the impotent masculinity and nerd stereotypes you’d expect from those railing against the new quartet.
Along those lines, a good chunk of the obligatory cameos are pretty clever. There are a couple tasteful callbacks – a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bust of Harold Ramis here, a CGI Dave Allen that you’ll miss whether or not you blink, and a post-credits appearance from Sigourney Weaver – but it’s the first appearance of Bill Murray that’s truly smart, phoned-in-acting or no. Murray’s on set as a sceptical scientist named Martin Heiss whose approval would mean everything to the new squad of Ghostbusters; as a sly bit of commentary on remake’s need for the validation of big name cameos, it’s spot on (and thankfully brief).
The new cast, meanwhile, are more than up to the task. The credentials of McCarthy and Wiig – who inexplicably take turns inhabiting the straight man role – are beyond reproach, of course, but both Jones and McKinnon acquit themselves well in their first capital-B-big roles outside of SNL. Yeah, it’d be nice if McKinnon’s lascivious overacting had some screenplay support, and if Jones’ character didn’t feel so regressively racist, but hey – we’re talking about the good stuff here!
Speaking of, in a film that’s become so pilloried and celebrated for handing the reins over to women, it’s a surprise that the comedic standout is one Chris Hemsworth. Granted, he gets the broadest material to work with as the lunkheaded receptionist of the four spirit-hunting ladies, but his thickly laid-on performance – complete with authentic Aussie accent – is both hilarious in its own right while allowing his comedian counterparts to practise their best work. The comedy here sings when it amps up the awkwardness – Feig’s forte since Freaks and Geeks days – and Hemsworth’s dim-witted Kevin is perfectly calibrated for awkward conversations, particularly in the face of Wiig’s character’s clumsy crush.
The best thing about Ghostbusters, though, is that it’s the rare studio comedy with ambition beyond a delayed-coming-of-age narrative sticky-taped together with improv and intoxication. Oh, there’s improv, sure, but it’s within the context of an actual honest-to-goodness plot with stakes and three acts and special effects and so on. Those special effects are top notch, too, finding the right balance between creepy and goofy that made the original film such a success. Even the 3D – for once! – feels like it’s worth the extra couple of dollars, thanks to Feig’s Xavier-Dolan-esque experimentation with the frame (I won’t spoil things, but I’ll just say that the letterboxed framing is not a mistake on the part of your local projectionist).
So, those looking to celebrate Ghostbusters as a victor against the misogynist manchildren have plenty of evidence to support their case. However, despite liking a good whack of the film, I can’t really say that it hangs together all that well. It’s not the fiasco its detractors might have wished for, but neither is it the kind of resounding success that will stop the naysayers in their tracks (assuming, that is, that they ever actually watch the dang film).
The main problem is probably Paul Feig. He’s made some good, even great, comedies over the last few years – Bridesmaids, Spy – and nobody’s gonna fuck with Freaks and Geeks’ deserved classic status. But he’s a better cultivator of talent than an actual director, and his films are rife with flabby editing that steps on punchlines and smothers snappy repartee. That’s especially pronounced in a story like this where, without a proper protagonist, the cohesiveness of the central characters is integral to the film’s success, particularly as a comedy. As mentioned, it kind of works when things are supposed to be awkward, but there’s way too many jokes that don’t land because of directorial choices, rather than the actors’ or the writers’ contributions.
Speaking of the writers…
Look, as I said before, I dig that Ghostbusters makes a serious attempt to have a proper, dramatic story. But why couldn’t it be a better one? The plotting is paper thin, and there’s no real attempt to develop a real sense of dramatic tension. The most egregious example of this is the extended subplot involving Andy Garcia as New York mayor and Cecily Strong as his right-hand-lady. You see, the city wants to paint the Ghostbusters as frauds, because they’re trying to cover up their clandestine knowledge of ectoplasmic activity.
Fine – I guess it keeps Garcia from being another “Jaws mayor”, to quote the film. But every scene involving these characters can’t seem to decide whether it’s presenting actual obstacles or trifling diversions to our heroines, and honestly could’ve been culled from the film entirely. By the time we get to the relatively jokeless, action-heavy third act, we might as well be in any other midrange blockbuster. The film can’t quite find the sweet spot between a simplistic plot that allows for killer comedy or an engaging story propelled by occasional jokes, leaving it filling adrift far too often.
Oh, and when I said that I liked a good chunk of the cameos, I may have omitted that I pretty well hated all the others (and I’m not even referring to the terrible Pringes/Papa Johns product placement here). Dan Aykroyd is about as embarrassing as you’d expect, Ernie Hudson feels like an afterthought and Bill Murray obliterates any good will lingering from his first cameo with an awful, utterly inexplicably second scene. The award for worst cameo, however, goes to Ozzy Osbourne as “Famous Rock Star.” Just …just dreadful.
Despite the cons and pros columns being roughly equal, I walked out of Ghostbusters optimistic. It’s not even that I’m inspired by the thought of young girls seeing these Ghostbusters as role models or whatever; it’s just that, for all its issues, this film is one of those misses that really makes you yearn for the possibility of a sequel. Ditch the origin story stuff, come up with some better jokes (or a better storyline), and I’ll be lining up for another ride no matter how many thumbs-down the trailer earns online.