Can we stop pretending the original Ghostbusters was some kind of bravura comic masterpiece? Although it is a delightfully bizarre B-movie and one of the strangest family films of all time, what with occult themes and Dan Akroyd being jerked off by a ghost, it is a mess. The narrative is rushed and the jokes aren’t all that funny- that the movie is a long-gestating pop culture phenomenon is likely due to the enduring charm of Bill Murray and Ray Parker Jr’s ear worm hit single.
If it wasn’t for that song being all over the radio before release, it isn’t hard to imagine the original would have flopped, as it defies all conventions of blockbuster cinema; it is an enjoyably unruly mess, but not an unimpeachable classic. Only Back to the Future and E.T stand as unimpeachable classics of 80’s blockbuster cinema that should never be remade, due to their timeless qualities. The idea of a Ghostbusters remake doesn’t exactly fill me up with dread, as it wasn’t exactly an idea that was executed perfectly the first time round, even if it was great fun.
Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a would-be science professor, who faces embarrassment after learning that a book she co-wrote about her beliefs in the paranormal is still available online, for her employers to see. When visiting her ex partner in crime Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and her new sidekick, the steampunk oddball Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), she immediately helped them stumble onto their first ghost busting case- and proof that ghosts are real. With the help of a New York obsessed blue collar worker (Leslie Arfin) and a dumb secretary (Chris Hemsworth), they decide to end the new supernatural crisis plaguing the city.
There is plenty in director Paul Feig’s new she-boot that suggests a new generation of children will love this franchise’s oddball unruliness too. For starters, the film is significantly funnier than the original, even if the jokes miss their target as consistently as they hit. This is likely because Feig’s three previous films (Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy) were all R-rated, meaning the cast could scream hilarious profanities at each other- he seems more comfortable directing outrageous comedy than jokes intended for a family audience.
The comedy in Ghostbusters works best when playing off Kate McKinnon’s offbeat comic sensibility or Chris Hemsworth’s brilliantly deadpan performance. Hemsworth is essentially playing the equivalent to Jason Statham in Spy here- a bumbling idiot who nobody is really sure how he managed to make it this far in life with such a lack of basic skills. I’ve never been impressed by Hemsworth in anything before, but here he delivers the best comedy performance of the year so far; as previously shown with Statham, Feig is great at getting non-comedians to deliver brilliantly deadpan performances.
The comedy that doesn’t work is all down the many, many arduous meta moments. How many times will somebody ask “who ya gonna call?” or tell us that they “ain’t afraid of no ghost”? It is fan service of the very worst order, with cameos of the old cast (starring as new characters) awkwardly co-existing with a commentary that aims to mirror the online backlash the film has received prior to release. In Bill Murray’s case, the narrative arc of his cameo is an old ghost skeptic pouring criticism onto these new ghostbusters- it sounds great on paper, but really doesn’t work in action. In fact, the only genuinely funny cameo in the film isn’t from a Ghostbuster at all, but a 2 second, irrelevant rock star whose appearance (and brilliant line of dialogue) completely caught me off guard.
Ah, yes, I’ve managed to get 520 words into this review without mentioning the fact this film hasn’t been received particularly well by men, most notably the vocal MRA’s on Reddit and IMDb who are blocking out all the positive reviews the film is receiving. I personally think many of the adulatory reviews are merely a sigh of relief because the film is objectively not awful; it has issues, but certainly is not an embarrassment. Many have claimed Sony paid critics to write good reviews, but if they did that, surely they would have done the same for every Adam Sandler movie they produced? I have a full think piece on Film Inquiry (which I sent to my editor prior to seeing the film) examining the backlash, but it is safe to say, the end result is merely above average. In a few weeks time, we’ll likely be laughing that trolls put so much time and effort into trashing a film that many people will think is just “meh”.
The film is enjoyable throughout, even when it isn’t causing audience members to roll down the aisles- as I said, Feig doesn’t do comedy for families easily, so there’s a laughter lull whenever McKinnon and Hemsworth are nowhere to be seen. But the real triumph is in the narrative pacing. I always felt the original rushed the formation of the Ghostbusters, to the extent that was far more unbelievable than anything that followed. That isn’t an issue here.
The main issue with the narrative is the waste of both a potentially great villain and a conspiracy thriller subplot that goes nowhere. As the film edges towards the end of the second act, we are told the government know all about ghost sightings and try their hardest to cover them up. Instead of making this the focus of the narrative, it is merely included for a couple of irrelevant scenes and gags. Although one of those gags is one of the best in the entire movie, about the mayor from Jaws.
There is wasted potential on this level. Feig has expressed interest in doing an origin story and as a result, has made the common origin story problem- not making you invested in the villain, as we spend too much time with the heroes. Periods of 25 minutes pass before we even see sequences that either feature the villain, or that make his plan relevant. Even in the brilliant third act, which makes the film a must see for anybody who loves the iconography of New York through the ages, his plan doesn’t come together even as the film delivers one of the best special effects driven set pieces of the summer. Yes, it has been a weak summer, but this epic finale has clearly been crafted out of love- and doesn’t end with a major city being destroyed, for once.
If you were expecting the worst film of the year, look elsewhere. Although flawed, it is a perfectly enjoyable start to what is surely an inevitable franchise. It is possibly the best studio blockbuster of the summer so far too- although that is merely because of the mediocre blockbusters that have been thrown our way so far (The Nice Guys isn’t a blockbuster, so can’t be counted).
Just remember one thing: Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot cannot recapture the pioneering musical magic that Ray Parker Jr. brought to the original. Now their cover version really does deserve to be credited as the worst of the year.