It’s times like these that I wonder if Roger Ebert ever faced the problem I’m having. Does that make it sound like I’m putting myself in the same ballpark as Roger Ebert? I’m not. I am to Roger Ebert what Caddyshack II is to Caddyshack. (As per review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the sequel currently stands at 4%(!) positive compared to the original’s 75% rating. So, yeah, that seems fair.) If anything, the higher rating isn’t high enough to properly gauge the late, great film critic’s skills. Still, did he ever review a remake of a movie he so beloved, and felt so close to, that he wasn’t sure if he could fairly assess the remake on its own merits? That was my worry going into the 2016 version of Ghostbusters.
If pop culture-obsessed children of the 1980s made a top ten list of movies that should be treated most like Lennie’s beloved rabbits in Of Mice and Men, the original Ghostbusters would be a heavy contender for number one. I turned four the summer it was released, and if you weren’t there, it’s impossible to overstate the absolute phenomenon that the movie was. A photo exists of my entire family wearing white shirts with the Ghostbusters logo emblazoned on the front, each of our names ironed onto the pocket*. I vividly remember Ghostbusters being the very first VHS rental for my family’s freshly purchased VCR.
There’s a lot of history here is all I’m saying.
I’m happy to report that none of the above kept me from having a damn good time with director Paul Feig’s update of Ghostbusters. Not every joke lands, not every plot turn dazzles, but Feig’s new telling of that cultural touchstone is absolutely worthy of carrying the Ghostbusters name on its redesigned jumpsuit.
If there’s one major criticism I can offer when comparing this new iteration to the original, it’s that the original’s sense of world building is missing. My partner defined it simply, and insightfully, by saying that the original Ghostbusters is a ghost story first and a comedy second. This new film is the opposite. In the 1984 version, all of the laughs come out of the situations, which are heavily invested in getting the audience to buy into the premise that ghosts are real. The result is that the spooky events are totally believed by all within the movie save for a select few. The 2016 version relies more heavily on a one-liner joke writing style, which is less satisfying. Still, that’s easy to forget when those one-liners are delivered with so much effortless skill by Ghostbusters’ four leads.
Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates is a loose interpretation of the Dan Aykroyd character from the original. Both are scientists on the fringe of respectability, believing in phenomenon that serious scientists reject out of hand. McCarthy brings an earnestness to the role that makes watching her a delight. Kristin Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, is initially the polar opposite of Abby – she is a physicist trying to gain tenure at Columbia University. Her tenure is rejected when the “embarrassing” book she wrote years ago with Abby resurfaces online, ruining Erin’s chances at a legitimate scientific career. The title of the book is one of the movie’s best jokes: Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively: The Study of the Paranormal.
Leslie Jones plays Patty Tolan, a New York subway employee who joins up with the paranormal investigators when she has her own haunted encounter in the bowels of the subway system. As the one non-scientist on the team, Patty serves as a kind of audience surrogate. That’s not unlike the character Ernie Hudson played in the original, but Patty is given a lot more to do here than Hudson’s character was. Jones’ comedic style is raucous and infectious, like her wild reaction when confronted by the ghost that appears in the subway tunnel.
As good as this trio of comics are in Ghostbusters, the absolute breakout star is Kate McKinnon as oddball engineer Jillian Holtzmann. McCarthy and Wiig are very funny, but they are essentially doing variations of screen personas that they have cultivated over several films. McKinnon invented a character totally unique, and she lives and breathes Jillian Holtzmann for every weird second she appears. McKinnon is magnetic, and I would be first in line to see her in her own Ghostbusters movie. From the crazy ticks and mannerisms to her outlandish character design, which I am convinced is based on the animated Egon Spengler from The Real Ghostbusters Saturday morning cartoon, McKinnon owns the screen.
The visual effects of the ghosts are standard fare with a few notable exceptions. In one scene, a sort of ghoulish Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade takes place, complete with giant haunted balloons. Those oversized balloons have a palpable texture, something that’s difficult to pull off when using only pixels on a screen. The same goes for the final showdown between the Ghostbusters and their paranormal foes. In a climax that’s reminiscent of the famous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man sequence from the original Ghostbusters, the last ghoul standing looks as magically real as I remember the Marshmallow Man looking when I was five years old.
The missing world building element I mentioned earlier is most evident in the plot of Ghostbusters. It involves a loser hotel maintenance man who is determined to take out his frustrations with the world by unleashing tortured souls from their paranormal plane. This plot device lacks the mysterious and spooky quality that exists in the intricate mythology of Gozer the Gozerian, Zuul the Gatekeeper, and Ivo Shandor from the original Ghostbusters. The credit to the success of that story goes to Dan Aykroyd, who co-wrote the original and is known for being a bona fide believer in paranormal phenomenon.
The new Ghostbusters lacks that attention to detail, as it’s focused primarily on the comedy. That makes it a little less interesting than it might have been, but no less enjoyable as a tent-pole summer blockbuster. Ghostbusters is just a hell of a lot of fun.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Ghostbusters is just about everything you could want in a summer comedy/action blockbuster. It's funny, entertaining, and moves at a quick pace.
- The inevitable comparisons to the original do leave this version a little lacking, but that is some incredibly stiff competition. I watched the 1984 version immediately after seeing the new one, and I bumped it up to classic status by giving it 5 stars over on my Letterboxd account. It meets my (completely) arbitrary criterion for classic status by being at least a quarter century old, as well as possessing the cinematic qualities that such a classification requires. I doubt this new version will ever be a classic, but, again, that's a lofty goal for any movie.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The sly references to the controversy of idiotic internet trolls (read: sexist men) attacking Ghostbusters for casting women as those who bust ghosts are hilarious. The most obvious of these is the character Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth. Kevin is hired as the secretary for the Ghostbusters, and he's extremely dimwitted, but incredibly attractive. Basically he's serves the role that women typically do in action movies written and directed by men. The satire is a little too broad at times, not all of the jokes land, but it was nice to see the filmmakers having a laugh at the expense of those internet troglodytes.
- The music in the new version isn't nearly as spooky as Elmer Bernstein's theremin and piano centered score.
- The gang's all here with cameos from just about all of the original Ghostbusters stars. Those cameos all work great, but a few, most notably Ozzy Osbourne, are cringeworthy.
*Funny how memory works. I was absolutely sure that all four of us were wearing the same shirt in this picture, and that they had our names on them. With the photographic evidence, now I can't even be certain I had one. They don't call me forgetful for nothing. I am representing the hell out of Texas, though.