Ghostbusters (2016)


It’s hardly surprising in 2016 that a beloved film would be remade by Hollywood in its tripartite dedication to expedience, recycling, and mammon. Nor is it that surprising that a proposed remake that seemed determined to cut against the grain of what the fan base wanted was the subject of some derision. Of course, when a sequel to or remake of a popular movie is announced the fans are expected to whoop and holler excitedly when the studio deigns to splice some footage for a showing at Comic-Con, whilst everyone else rolls their eyes and bemoans the bankruptcy of Hollywood and pop culture whilst looking for their Paradjanov DVDs. But the resulting clamour from some aficionados when a remake of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 hit Ghostbusters with an all-female crew of phantom-fighters was proposed became deeply obnoxious, even reprehensible, to the point where many started pulling for the new project to succeed just to flip the bird at the many whiny creeps out there in internet land. Much of the protestation from fans and dissent from cognoscenti felt a bit forced and posed to me: surely it’s not terribly controversial in 2016 either to cast women in a comedy film, nor to assume a remake will suck considering how many of them do? Well, apparently it is. For all the polemic, director Paul Feig and stars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are the type of people Hollywood loves most: those who have made recently profitable movies. Still, I admire the relative courage of the studio and the producers – whose ranks include Reitman and Dan Aykroyd, co-author of the original – for venturing into something like virgin territory. 


Personally, I remained vaguely interested but also not very confident in the project. This was because, firstly, yes, remakes do generally suck. Secondly, having failed to even last to the half-way mark of Feig and costar Melissa McCarthy’s awful lampoon Spy (2015), I had come to the conclusion that Feig is a no-talent directorially speaking, and McCarthy has let too much of the ornery bristle she displayed on Bridesmaids (2011) be filed down for the sake of trying to cement herself as a popular clown. Here McCarthy is partnered up with the exceedingly talented Wiig, whose script for Bridesmaids was probably the reason for its relative quality, and two Saturday Night Live stars, the statuesque Leslie Jones and gadabout Kate McKinnon. The storyline follows the original in rough outline, starting with a manifestation of ghostly terror played relatively straight, in this case a tour guide (Zack Woods) in a Gilded Age mansion being scared witless by a manifestation of something terrifying in the basement, where the ghost of a murderess reputedly dwells. A similarly intimidating apparition appears in the subway, scaring off ticket seller Patty Tolan (Jones). Meanwhile uptight Columbia University tenure candidate and physicist Erin Gilbert (Wiig) is disturbed when she’s approached by the haunted mansion’s trustee Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley Jr.), who wants her to investigate because of a book she co-authored years before on the existence of ghosts. 


Erin is appalled, as she’s tried to suppress the existence of the book, which she wrote with her childhood friend and fellow scientist Abby Yates (McCarthy). Abby, as well as continuing her enquiries into the uncanny, is selling the book now, endangering Erin’s attempts to establish herself as a rock-solid, properly staid academic. Abby works for a shoddy for-profit college in partnership with mad genius Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), pursuing their enquiries into the paranormal. Erin confronts Abby, who is unrepentant, needing the money and deriving some pleasure from sticking it to the former pal who ran out and got square on her. When they learn Erin has been approached by Mulgrave, Abby and Holtzmann press her to let them investigate the entity with her, and they gain all too convincing (and icky) proof of the spectre’s reality. Erin gets the sack after the footage is posted on YouTube, so the trio form an investigative team. Patty approaches them with news of her encounter and soon volunteers herself as streetwise addition to the team, and they gain a secretary in the form not-so-bright hipster hunk Kevin (Chris Hemsworth). 


The galling thing with this Ghostbusters is that it’s neither a good movie nor a gobsmacking disaster. It’s spectacular only in its mediocrity, a very familiar brand of mediocrity that’s everywhere in contemporary Hollywood product. It’s weak on story, structure, and directorial style. And the stuff that’s supposed to make up for all that, the humour, isn’t very funny. Many of the film’s sharper moments suggest the approach a better take would adopt, humour rooted in a waggish sense of new New York in specific and human folly in general, such as fuelled the original – the team encountering a graffiti artist (Nate Corddry) who has a gallery in Soho, the crowd of a heavy metal concert cheering a demonic manifestation under the impression it’s stagecraft, the team failing to obtain the fire house used by the original team because it’s far too expensive and having to use the top of a Chinese restaurant instead. Feig’s loose approach with his cast pays off in some occasional jots of playful, off-the-cuff amusement, like an impromptu dance session for the team that sees Erin trying to impress Kevin with her dorky moves, and several of Holtzmann’s throwaway gags. McKinnon is the wild card in this concoction, much as McCarthy was on Bridesmaids. The sight of her in production stills with jutting crown of bobbing blonde hair, reminiscent of the version of Egon Spengler from the animated series The Real Ghostbusters whilst also bringing a touch of femme-punk attitude, was also this film’s most intriguing prospect. And she delivers to a certain extent with her blind-siding jokes, like munching on Doritos during a tense moment: “Try saying no to these salty parabolas.”


But the goofball, improv-heavy method falls flat much more often than it properly pays, and although it sometimes works, each laugh usually comes with an irritating codicil -- for instance, the way Feig indulges McKinnon, which summarises a serious underlying problem not just with this film but in modern comedy film in general. Part of the original Ghostbusters' value lies in its happy skill in mixing ‘80s pizazz, apparent in the special effects and flourishes of self-aware humour, and adherence to some very solid and basic precepts of storytelling and comedy. The characters in the original act according to their described type and react to situations around them; the events are serious, the people are people and not joke machines, and their little world is detailed with childlike delight, like the fire poll the team gleefully commandeered. Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman employed his own post-modern, boundary-rupturing sense of humour, as opposed to the film itself, which kept to the rules of its chosen reality. The plot was strong and classically shaped. It did not insist on being a comedy in every single moment, instead providing interludes of quiet, romance, even genuine outright fright-night stuff. The narrative was carefully constructed in a way that it could be funny or scary whilst also obeying its own internal sense, building famously to a triumphant confluence in the appearance of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man: of course the shape-shifting demon from another dimension would manifest as the gigantic simulacrum of a geeky boy-man’s hazily remembered childhood iconography. To say that this remake doesn’t have anything one-tenth as clever or effective in tying its protagonists’ psyches to the immediacy of the unfolding mayhem and conceptual loopiness seems par for the course. But it doesn't even try.


The script, by Feig and former Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold, who also penned McCarthy’s The Heat (2013), is a mere ghost (sorry) of the original’s. Worse, Feig doesn’t show any signs of having considered the original film’s unstable yet successful mix at all, even with Aykroyd and Reitman looking over his shoulder. Feig lets McKinnon spin about her character’s workstation with blowtorches in each hand setting fire to things, a way of getting a cheap shot of random humour that doesn’t make any sense except on a fratboy prank level, with the thin cover that, well, Holtzmann is kinda crazy, so there. Hemsworth’s part exemplifies a sloppy and facetious aspect to this film on at least two levels: like McKinnon, he supplies some genuine humour (as when he holds up two ridiculous beefcake photos to choose “which one makes me look more like a doctor”). But he also represents a conceit that’s lazy and wrongheaded. The role takes a poke at the classic dumb blonde secretary with a gender inversion, an idea that seems about twenty years past its use-by date and which should have been shot down in the first story meeting. Compare, if you will, to Annie Potts’ stiletto-sharp Noo Yawk voice and testy, put-upon attitude in the original, and you’ll see a failure of both comic invention and observation in the new film, whose reference points are almost strictly about other movies. Similarly, the drawn-out sequence in which Erin, Abby, and Holtzmann interview Kevin is painfully silly and unfunny, particularly when contrasted with Potts’ interview as Janine with Ernie Hudson’s Winston, a brief but sublime epigram of both character and situation humour that defined both people in a way that required no other iteration, and made sport of the basic incongruity of the proposed job. Of course a man being interviewed for a job with a ghostbusting outfit would be expected to believe in his business and of course the overworked secretary and unemployed black man would be more than little cynical about it.


Nonetheless, it would be fair to shrug at this and say, okay, the humour style is different. But there are already too many random grab-bag comedies around today, and the grab-bag in this movie is both too overloaded and undercooked to generate genuine comic capital. We pause to explain things that don’t need explaining and aren’t elaborated with any real intelligence, like where the team’s logo comes from, or making the Ecto 1 a working hearse Patty borrows from her uncle (Ernie Hudson) and which Holtzmann gives an upgrade – a touch that makes infinitely less sense than its just being a second-hand bargain. The nominal bad guy is Rowan North (Neil Casey), an angry loner working as a hotel cleaner who nonetheless has found a way of tapping into the spirit world with the intention of crossing over and then returning as conquering demon lord. The idea is pretty obvious here – Rowan is basically the kind of internet troll who took aim at the movie in the first place. And if Feig had actually proven able to make any kind of satirical hay out of this it might have been biting and cool. But instead this aspect of the film, like too many others, simply sits there hoping we’ll pat it on the head. The film only ever remembers to return to its storyline when it’s done with rambling comedy exchanges. Another signal quality of the original was its approach to its story underpinnings and to the supernatural, taking care to create a fascinating background mythology and present its fantastical imagery with real power.


Aykroyd took the idea of probing the mystical seriously, both in life and in dramatic guise, and this was transmitted through the original as a whole. The manifestations of Zuul and her interdimensional abode in the finale had a genuinely weird and fervent visual and conceptual impact. The dog demons that grab and claim Dana and Louis had real horror movie kick that might be reminiscent of other horror movie motifs but aren't specifically indebted to anything else. Here Feig offers a sequence in which Abby is possessed so he can toss in a lame The Exorcist (1973) joke. By comparison, Ghostbusters redux hardly even seems interested in its ghosts. The early manifestations simply hover about waiting for the team to do their supposed funny stuff, rather than possessing the impudent life of Slimer (who makes an appearance in the remake, albeit in such a way that only reminds you someone’s ticking off a fan reference point). Look once more at the original (apologies for all these comparisons, but how exactly do you point out the difference between something well-done and something not?) and the show-stopping moment when Venkman was slimed. That sequence was carefully constructed as one of apparent threat, even terror as the poltergeist charged Venkman, only then to provide a droll and deliberately anticlimactic punch-line. Here, when the team encounter the ghost woman in the mansion towards the start of the film, it simply upchucks on Erin, in a manner reminiscent of the similar prolonged vomiting scene in Spy that finally drove me from the theatre. Feig fails to construct any kind of sequence with more than the most barely functional competence. Right towards the end there is one fairly fun, dynamic sequence when Abby, Holtzmann, and Patty battle their way through ghosts massed in downtown Manhattan – the kind of actual, proper moviemaking this desperately needed more of, and a sequence that gives its leads a chance to shine in motion. But this too, when you look at it closely, is essentially just another unit of line-elements-up and knock-elements-down staging.


The film also flails in its attempt to convince us of the camaraderie of the heroines. Abby and Erin supposedly had a steadfast bond but the finale’s attempt to generate a paean to friendship as a heroic value but falls flat because, frankly, nobody seems to have gone to the effort to convince us of that friendship - bromance without the bros and not much mance. Indeed, I found it surprising how much this Ghostbusters manages to retard the comic energy of its leads, particularly Wiig, who can do just about anything it seems except cope with a role that doesn’t actually ask anything of her, apart from occasionally drooling over Hemsworth’s pecs, and McCarthy, whose firecracker impulses have been entirely doused. Jones gets to run away and shout things like “Aw hell no!” in a way that made me seriously wonder if anything has changed that much since the heyday of Willie Best. Major cast members of the original pop up in cameos, some flagrantly pointless (Aykroyd as a cab driver, Potts as a hotel desk clerk), others laden with unfulfilled possibility (Murray as a sceptic who confronts the team, Sigourney Weaver as Holtzmann’s mentor). One recent remake this pile reminded me of insistently, in spite of their nominally different modes, was Jose Padilha’s similarly interminable take on Robocop (2014), provoking wonderment at how both remakes manage to emphasise the wrong aspects at every turn, and how heavy-footed modern Hollywood can be compared to its relatively recent past. Weaver's cameo recalled how much better Greg Mottola's Paul (2011) and particularly Amy Heckerling's Vamps (2012), both of which she appeared in, were at paying tribute to '80s pop movies in blithe and bouncy style whilst being their own movies. There is a reason people still love the original Ghostbusters after thirty years. No-one will care this take exists by the end of the year except for a couple of studio accountants, who will ultimately give the yay or nay as to whether the sequel mooted at very end will actually materialise.


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