Overview: Four women on a search to prove the existence of ghosts have to stop a madman from removing the barrier between the living and the dead in New York City. Columbia Pictures; 2016; PG-13; 114 minutes.
Never Read the Comments: The new Ghostbusters team shoots the old Ghostbusters icon right in the dick. This isn’t a celebratory statement of feminist triumph. I wish it was. After decades of being stepped on by the heavy boots of male-focused franchises of all genres, women have every right to take ownership of a single female reboot of a rather benign property in an era of endless reboots. So if my opening statement had been a figurative exclamation of the film’s success, that means I would have been measuring the film by its own terms, which is the only thing I had hoped to do when I set out to review Paul Feig’s new female-led reboot: measure the film on its own terms without having to acknowledge the now-preposterous conversation that has surrounded it since the announcement of its production. Instead, my opening statement is an observable truism regarding the actual events of the film: the classic Ghostbusters logo is anthropomorphically rendered by ghost possession into a towering monster with passing resemblance to the cartoon icon, and the new Ghostbusters troupe defeat this baddie by shooting it between the legs. Really, I could write a thousand words on this moment alone (for instance, the new Ghostbuster team is not just shooting their source material in this scene, they’re re-purposing the tired “shot to the nuts” joke that appears way too frequently in boys club comedies), but I don’t have to. Because there are several instances in which the new film stops to textually discuss its overly-contested relationship with the original beloved 1984 version.
Earlier in the movie, when Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) are first successful in their efforts to capture a ghost–a lifelong goal of reunited friends Erin and Abby–the spirit is haphazardly released by Erin for unclear and out-of-character reasoning, and the ensuing chaos sends perhaps the most fundamental Ghostbusters icon of all flying through a window, never to be seen thereafter. Before that even, the women gather to watch video of their initial ghost encounter and then read the video’s sexist comments. This scene, I was disappointed to learn afterward, was added after production in response to the Internet whirlpool of man-baby hissy fits about “ruined childhoods” and “feminist agendas.” (This post-production inclusion feels particularly wrong-minded given how many scene transitions and banter sequences felt in need of a little more editing).
That isn’t to say that the all-female reboot should avoid gender-inequality and conflict as a punchline. On the contrary, the objectified and ditzy receptionist Kevin (played by Chris Hemsworth, who most know from the overwhelmingly male Avengers films) is, at least for a few scenes, one of my favorite recent examples of satirically inverted sexist tropes. Andy Garcia’s incompetent Mayor and his supportive assistant Jennifer (Cecily Strong) are a modified but equally funny version of the same joke format. The film’s human antagonist is creepy enough to give viewers the willies and a just-subtle-enough manifestation of the self-persecuting MRA type to get the point across. But at some point, the new Ghostbusters could have benefited from escaping rather than fighting the shadow of the original and the storm of stupidity of its most malicious fans. When it matters most (in this case, once the film starts), making progress is more important than being seen fighting progress’s enemies and obstacles. If movie nerds can forgive the sports metaphor: when you hit the open field, you run with the ball at your best speed. A few too many times, Feig has the opportunity to spring forward in whichever direction he might choose, but slows down to elbow sideways and punch backward.
Safety Lines Are For Men: This creative entanglement is an anchor to some really good stuff. Namely, all four leads are funny, a compliment that most multi-comedian-lead films, including both original Ghosbusters movies, do not earn. There are a lot of laughs to have here, even if they are earned through a non-stop blitz of goofy attempts. The tone is sometimes jarringly silly, at times inorganic, and there are a noteworthy amount of one-liners that just don’t land, but every major character finds more than one moment to shine. Specifically, this might be a star-making comedy performance for McKinnon, who seems to have been scripted fewer punchlines but displays an ornery, smirking bratty-ness that makes her performance feel more joyful and free than that of her co-stars.
But the best elements of the new Ghostbusters are those in which Feig and his writers become inventive, when they make something new and all their own, and by measure of those specific elements, this Ghostbusters surpasses both the original and other like-minded films of the current film season. The invented ghostbustin’ gadgetry is, flatly stated, the best we have ever seen in any iteration of Ghostbuster story. Fans of collectible action figures should be giddy with anticipation. The terms of supernatural mythology are also more clear and engaging and the CGI ghost design is, as needed, fun and terrifying–the ten story Uncle Sam and the mirror-trapped anguished souls illustrate the best examples of both respective descriptions. These three elements all intersect in the film’s best scene, one of the best of the summer, in which the women go to battle with an army of historical ghosts, and each of the four is given adequate time to shine in combat in a manner that heightens enjoyment of each individualized character. So, it’s disheartening again to realize this sequence is sandwiched between less-interesting fights with pre-existing Ghostbusters iconography.
Overall: At the end of the film, the new Ghostbusters gather on a rooftop and see their city illuminated in celebration of their effort. They are relieved to be recognized and appreciated. “That’s not terrible at all,” Erin assesses, and it definitely feels like the film is reviewing itself, as if just being accepted was the initial goal. By that ruler, the spoken line is right to meta-textually acknowledge success. Ghostbusters passes as an enjoyable and amusing film. But if the movie, the cast, and Feig had set a higher goal from the outset, they all might have capitalized on their best elements to achieve classic film status by their own terms, and perhaps won the battle with the movie instead of fighting it wastefully within the movie.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures