'Ghostbusters' Pays Homage to the Original, But Fails to Forge Its Own Identity
Like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens before it, Ghostbusters relies on a familiar formula to ensure the safest product possible.
The good news is that Paul Feig’s ballyhooed all-female (re)production of Ghostbusters isn’t the disaster predicted by the horrific trailers. The bad news is that it’s a middling affair with nothing new to offer and very little edge. Like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens before it, Ghostbusters is a soft remake that relies on a familiar formula to ensure the safest product possible.
Feig sprinkles his off-kilter wit throughout the film’s first half, but the final act degenerates into a boring videogame. If you’re looking for a blast of nostalgia and a mildly entertaining diversion, however, Ghostbusters might be worth a call.
As with Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original, the main characters from the 2016 version of Ghostbusters are anchored in academia. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is an enterprising physicist at Columbia who’s desperately trying to secure tenure. She vents insecurity like a ghost oozes ectoplasm; validation is the only form of currency that she understands.
About a million years ago, Erin wrote a book about the paranormal with her high school buddy Abby (Melissa McCarthy). Unlike Erin, Abby never gave up the ghost. Her clandestine laboratory operates from the basement of a nefarious diploma mill that “spells ‘science’ with a ‘Y’!” She’s got the firepower to battle a small army of ghosts, thanks to her peculiar engineering pal Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Holtzmann, perhaps the only original concoction in Ghostbusters, is a bundle of quirks and jerks and leering smiles who steals every scene.
Rounding out the principal cast is Patty (Leslie Jones), a disgruntled subway employee who knows her New York history inside and out. She flees the urine-soaked rails after being harassed by a malevolent ghost who, in its corporeal form, was electrocuted in the prison that once resided above the subway. It’s unclear if this convict is related to the Scoleri Brothers, but the resemblance is uncanny. Patty’s brush with the supernatural leads her to the Ghostbusters, where she’s furnished with a proton pack and plenty of uninspiring wisecracks.
Therein lays the biggest problem with this reincarnation of a comedy classic; it’s simply not that funny. It’s the kind of humor that makes you smile occasionally, but the belly laughs are noticeably absent. Character development wasn’t high on Ramis or Aykroyd’s list of priorities back in 1984, but they made sure that each Ghostbuster had a distinct personality and voice. Here, Feig and his co-writer, Katie Dippold, fail to establish either Abby or Erin as a unique voice. They blend together into a litany of bland one-liners. This begs the familiar question when it comes to Ghostbusting: Does it really take four people to do it?
Obviously, nostalgia is a key ingredient of Feig’s interpretation. Much remains of the multi-syllabic lingo that Aykroyd made famous, though nothing can match his effortless, robotic delivery. Class Four Malevolent Apparitions and full-roaming vapors abound. Each original cast member is also given a cameo, to varying degrees of success. It’s a nice gesture, though somewhat confusing, considering that Feig completely ignores the existence of the original Ghostbusters crew in his story.
Otherwise, Feig does so much nodding to Ghostbusters nostalgia that it makes sense to stage an elaborate action scene at a head-banging heavy metal concert. Our nuclear-charged ladies take to the stage, battling a winged demon that would mesh perfectly with Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge motif. Sadly, this is the last glimmer of originality, as the remaining action set pieces are practically carbon copies of the 1984 showdown.
New York again features prominently in the destruction. Unlike the early ‘80s, however, modern-day New York isn’t a cesspool of crime and poverty. This grimy subtext informed the original Ghostbusters with a feeling of community, making the entire city an important character in the story. When the ghosts attacked New York in the original film, it united the citizens in a common fight. Now, it’s just a familiar backdrop for havoc; a reminder that the funky underdog has been replaced by a seamless special-effects behemoth.
Yes, the updated special effects are impressive, but they add nothing to the wit or humor of the action. In fact, the final act of Ghostbusters completely forgoes the comedy in lieu of ‘splosions and spectacle. A few lame attempts are made at pithy ‘kill lines’, but it’s just an excuse to show off the new weaponry and reduce lots of ghosts to slimy stains. Unlike his previous action ventures, The Heat and Spy, Feig puts the comedy on hold when the action revs up.
It’s hard to evaluate the performances in Ghostbusters because so little is asked of the actors. McCarthy might as well be a ghost, as her character is practically invisible for most of the film. Feig does continue his hot streak of creating memorable secondary characters, however. Karan Soni is hilarious as an inept delivery dude, and Andy Garcia delivers the film’s best one liner as the anal retentive Mayor of New York (just don’t mention Jaws when he’s around). There’s also a villainous nerd played by Neil Casey who wants to unleash a bunch of ghosts. He’s neither funny nor menacing… moving on.
Ironically, Chris Hemsworth shows the most range, flashing surprising comic chops as the ridiculously stupid secretary, Kevin. When Kevin observes that, “Aquariums are like submarines for fish”, we capture a glimpse of what Ghostbusters might have been had Feig not abandoned his trademark irreverence in favor of accessibility. It could also be argued that Feig’s brand of comedy doesn’t translate well to PG-13 fare, but that’s a discussion for a different venue.
There's certainly fun to be had at the new Ghostbusters. Feig is a gifted filmmaker and his actors all possess impeccable comic timing. While there isn’t a cynical note in the entire film, it feels like a safe, flavorless recipe prepared from gourmet ingredients. Much was made over adapting the venerable classic to an all-female cast; those concerns were completely unfounded. The bigger challenge, and where Ghostbusters ultimately fails, is paying homage to the original while still forging its own identity. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will be less interested in pleasing the masses and more concerned with delivering a funny movie.