Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
Despite five superhero movies out this year, the most anticipated movie of the summer blockbuster season would arguably be Ghostbusters, the reboot of the 1984 film. The problem with it arriving as the most talked about film is, it could never live up to the controversies and debate it sparked more than two years ago. And the fact is, describing it as nothing more than a below average movie could be misinterpreted by exuberant supporters or extreme haters coming into the discussion…something I’m preparing myself for. Too many people have been simply waiting to either attack or praise this movie, regardless of what it actually delivered. It is an uneven, underwhelming movie without enough laughs, with solid action but too few jumps or scares, and shows more promise than it actually delivers.
Like its predecessor, this new Ghostbusters film starts out like the previous film…with scientists being discredited for taking ghosts and the supernatural seriously. This time, the film focuses on the mild-manner Erin (Kristen Wiig), the former supernatural scientist who gave up her passion to focus on more academically accepted forms of study to teach in prestigious universities. Her former partner Abby (Melissa McCarthy) is still hard at work on her studies, now working with engineer Jillian (Kate McKinnon). After encountering their first ghost, they are all discredited by their academic institutions and form their own company/institution. Their professional pursuits include renting a loft and hiring a dimwitted male receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), an often funny but noticeably overused character. Eventually, subway employee Patty (Leslie Jones) joins the team after alerting the team of the supernatural mischief hotel employee Rowan (Neil Casey) is up to at her subway station.
If this sounds like a familiar set up, the fact that it is one of the film’s biggest missteps. The aspect that there is a certain procedural aspect for any movie that features team building is expected, and that familiarity can often be part of the fun. But the film’s pacing is strangely out of proportion as it takes a shockingly long, leisurely time to establish the premise and bring characters together, and yet the characters actual personalities and relationships still feel underdeveloped. Wiig may get the most in terms of a fleshed out character, but what we get is still rather minimal. And McCarthy and McKinnon’s characters are shockingly underwritten…especially considering how much effort both women put into make their characters seem specific and lovable (especially the physical aspects they add to the characters).
This fact is especially alarming considering the talent behind these films and track record director Paul Feig has as a director who makes comedies about women and female frienships. Unlike his previous collaborations with McCarthy (Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy) the lack of character development and authentic female friendships is a major disappointment here. In Feig’s previous film, Spy (my personal favorite of his films) he managed to have a perfect blend of character, action set pieces, and genre conventions brought together. Here however the characters seem to have been sacrificed for the latter. Even though all four women have a natural, easy chemistry when together on screen, none of them can make these roles as memorable or enduring as characters Feig (and cowriter Katie Dippold) have written before.
Leaving this screening, realized that this movie feels like a bloated comedy pilot for a potentially enjoyable supernatural workplace comedy. The actors have the chemistry and there is enough introduced about the characters to suggest more time on screen might result in something far better than we get in their first outing. But as a stand-alone film, a lot of the character interactions and dialogue end up falling flat…some works, but the ratio isn’t high enough considering the movie’s bloated running time.
But this doesn’t mean the movie is a failure or without redeeming factors. The comedy dialogue which does work delivers some big laughs, and all the women are likable performers doing their best and fully committing. The overall plot is engaging enough to have kept me interested throughout (although the final sequence is so overdone and exhausting it becomes a bore). And while the recent trend of neon lights to reflect otherworldly influences in action sequences is an unappealing one to me, I know many appreciate how it adds a colorful, cartoonish visual qualities blockbuster films which are often too dark. And Paul Feig is an immensely talented action director whose best sequence in the movie features Kate McKinnon taking center stage, despite having almost no dialogue.
As for obvious comparisons to the 1984 classic; as much as the studio have requested audiences to put those memories out of their minds and try to watch this as its own movie, the film makes that virtually impossible. Besides the number of plot elements being similar, the movie throws in far too many references to the original which are given either direct visual or spoken commentary in this film; the firehouse, the guns, the logo, the song, several ghosts are all brought back simply to be familiar to fans. Often they are called out just to show a bigger or more extreme version of something the audience will soon get. For example, minutes after showing a large version of the marshmallow man, we then get an enlarged character of something else cute and cuddly, but supposedly more terrifying. Anyone familiar with the original will get the joke and what they’ve made the effort to change but the new joke isn’t nearly as funny as the original. We also get all the leads from the original back (with the exception of the late, great Harold Ramis). But all these cameos come far too late in the film to avoid distracting their audience who should already be invested in the movie they are watching. Since Hitchcock’s cinematic cameos became recognizable, he realized the earlier in the film a cameo or reference happen, the less distracting they will be…something I thought Feig, who has also made cameos in his films, would have realized.
There isn’t much originality on display in this film, nothing which could suggest it is reinvigorating the franchise. It seems to lack a reason for existing beyond cashing in on a marketable name, but it’s also clear that the filmmakers themselves aren’t being lazy in how they are approaching the property they’ve been given. They simply have made an entirely unnecessary film that wastes lots of money and plenty of talented people. While the lack of originality is a problem, I would predict that if we could somehow judge the two films side by side, the strengths that supersede the original aren’t simply connected to it being the first. The original film had a zippy pace and fast, whip-smart dialogue between the three leads who had a close bond, which eventually encompassed Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and Annie Potts within that inner circle so characters felt close and familiar on screen. Its rag-tag, DIY cinematic style encouraged audiences to feel absorbed by the outlandish action and premise presented to them. And the movie was better at blending jump scares and horror comedy…this film is never scary, but the horror also isn’t fun or funny enough.
The sad fact surrounding this movie, even as I write this trying to be as objective as possible, is it enters the marketplace with so many additional opinions and ideologies surrounding it, we won’t get a sense of how good it really is for a long time. So called internet fanboys that disliked the idea of a remake specifically because it would star four women in roles once taken by men and some feminist sites leading the extremist idea to support the film blindly were both at fault for adding fuel to the fire erupting on social media. Now there are audiences both boycotting and planning group screenings simply to vote for or against the movie they still haven’t seen for themselves. Perhaps we’ll one day be able to reassess this comedy film for what it really is, without the burden of a political-social statement surrounding it…although it might take another 30 years before we get there.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)