REVIEW: Ghostbusters (2016)

This has to be the most thankless movie ever made.

Here’s a challenge for you: Find a review of the new Ghostbusters by a self-described fan (look for a logo t-shirt and toys in the background) where the reviewer in question doesn’t mention their vastly superior concept for the never-to-be Ghostbusters 3.

I’ll wait.  You’ll be a while. And probably need a few showers.

Not only did this movie have to stand trial as a feminist statement, it had to face the scrutiny of all the fans who’d already made not only Ghostbusters 3, but Ghostbusters 4, 5 and The Next Generation.  In their heads, of course.Where there are no stakes, every budget is in the billions and actors never age.

There was no way this movie was ever going to win.

A sequel focusing on the original cast was in the cards since 1999, but Bill Murray kept shuffling it until the passing of Harold Ramis pulled it out of the deck entirely.  The closest it came to fruition was probably around 2009, when Ghostbusters: The Video Game was released, and even then the youngest of the team would’ve been 57.  Most of the aforementioned fan reviews suggest a passing-of-the-torch story, ala The Force Awakens. The first problem with that is timing – the reboot was announced more than a year before Star Wars: Episode VII hit theaters.  It could never have taken that lead, even if the filmmakers would’ve wanted to. The second, bigger problem is two-fold – how much attention do you give to the original cast and who can possibly compete with them on-screen?  If they duck in at the beginning to hand some kids the old equipment with comically brief instruction, what’s the point? Not enough, they’ll cry.  So you split the difference and cut down on the recruits’ screentime.  Why include these annoying new people at all?, they’d shriek.  It’s difficult enough giving four leads something to do for two hours.  Take a look at Ghostbusters 2 or Winston in general to see what I mean. And now you’re looking at adding at least three more.


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Though we’ll never find out how the hell this logo would’ve been explained.

It’s not a fact that fans want to admit, but there isn’t a box office attraction among the cast of Ghostbusters anymore.  The video game sold well enough and Bill Murray is breathing the rarified air of internet legend, but neither spells a guaranteed blockbuster for Sony.  Bringing in whichever cast members they could convince/pay to prop up a new team would be appeasing to the fans, but it would hog-tie the continuing franchise to the old.  That takes any similar plots to the first two out of the question (though they’re almost identical to one-another). That also means the follow-up would be set in a world where New York City was besieged by a 100-foot s’more, the Statue of Liberty and two near-apocalypses in the span of five years.  What would that even look like?  Would ghosts be no more shocking than the common cockroach?

That’s why Paul Feig wanted a reboot. Not to castrate the fan legion and burn all copies of the original in a big feminist bonfire as the internet would have you believe.  Feig and screenwriter Katie Dippold didn’t think a world that had 30 years to get comfortable with the existence of ghosts was very exciting.  And I can’t blame them.  Even Ghostbusters 2, set just five years after the original, pulled a puzzling reset and made the city of New York somehow forget the earthquake, zombie cab drivers and Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.  That’s an immediate source of conflict and resistance for the Ghostbusters, and it isn’t often cited as a reason the original works so well.  Three scientists are kicked out of Columbia for being frauds, even though they’ve just found proof. So they go into business for themselves, only to be called frauds again, this time by the government. It takes the city almost getting sucked into another dimension to convince anyone they’re not crazy.

But a reboot sidesteps all the baggage and allows for a new franchise to carry on without anything holding it in the past.  It may be the biggest gamble for success in the short term, but in the age of Cinematic Universes, it’s the safest bet for the future.

But that’s all just thunder and rain around its release.  All that matters, at the end of the day, is the movie.

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The logo on the door is bigger this time, too.

And Ghostbusters isn’t good enough to make the naysayers eat their nays, or bad enough to prove them right.

As you might expect, it follows the same structure as the original movie, starting with an underpaid employee alone in their spooky place of work getting so scared, the title card has to save them.  In the original, it’s a librarian. In the reboot, it’s a tour guide for a haunted mansion.  We even get to tag-along on one of his tours, which is where the trouble starts, both with and within the movie.

The guide makes several off-color jokes about how P.T. Barnum got his idea for enslaving elephants in the house and the anti-Irish fence that surrounds it.  They’re funny lines, even if the punchline of the past being racist and inhumane is easy. The problem is that no tour guide would ever make those jokes unless they wanted complaints or walking papers.  He delivers them matter-of-fact, as if he was talking about when they first installed plumbing in the mansion.  And none of the tourists following seem to laugh. I couldn’t much hear because the audience was roaring, so maybe I’m in the wrong here on a few counts.

But that’s the first and most fatal flaw in Ghostbusters – reality takes a break whenever there’s even the slightest chance to ring some laughs out of the material.  The movie never sets a par for the course, so there’s no penalty for going out-of-bounds. As a result, even when the ball stays on the green, it’s satisfying only for a moment before the next wild drive sends it into the woods.

The other problem in the scene is in the effects department.  Once the tour guide is alone, a door that’s been locked for decades if not centuries swings open. Soon he’s running like the librarian of old, hauling tail for the exit and turning blindly down every hallway. Frankly it doesn’t make much sense considering his job is to literally show people around the place, but that’s just reality taking another breather.  Eventually the tour guide finds the exit, gets thrown against a wall by an unseen force and scurries off to the nearest window.  He hurls a chair at the glass, only for the still-unseen force catch the chair and hurl it back. More frantic than ever, he hurries into the basement where *gasp* the door slams behind him, the floor cracks and slime gurgles out of the foundation.  The room glows green and the stairs buckle below his feet.  He jumps for the door and catches the top step.  Hanging, helpless, the ghost responsible for his torment zooms at him and we see his fear from its perspective.  Cue the theme.

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Almost can’t tell if this is concept art or not.

In the original, what first scares the librarian is the card catalog billowing out of its cabinets. In the end, all we see of what scares her so is a bright light on her face and a fan blowing her hair back.

That’s it.

And while the reboot opening (and the rest of the movie) has a jumpier sense of scariness to it, it’s immediately less engaging.

Because we see too much. Because the special effects aren’t a restraint anymore.

In the commentary for the original, Harold Ramis points out the effect of the books floating from one shelf to another and jokes that it cost $250,000.  In reality all it cost was a spool of fishing line. The flash of light and gust of wind at the end of the opening was a means to show a lot with a little, so they wouldn’t have to spend another million on building a different animatronic or reconstructing the set on a soundstage to allow for something like the floor cracking and slime bubbling through.

In the reboot, special effects overwhelm scenes without any responsibility or thought towards narrative value.  Before the title even hits the screen, we’ve seen an invisible force throw an adult across a room, catch a flying chair, break the stone foundations of a historic mansion and flood the basement with slime.  Even though Feig and Dippold wanted to explore a world that doesn’t believe in ghosts, they’ve been entirely demystified to us before the theme song even plays.

The weakest scenes in Ghostbusters are the ones where reality brakes for improv or the effects overwhelm, often wedged uncomfortably back-to-back.

And it’s a shame because the new team deserves better.

The de facto main characters are played by Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, and the emotional core of the movie is wisely invested in their relationship versus a rehash of the original’s romantic subplot.  As expected, Wiig and McCarthy make the material work, but they’re also the movie’s biggest offenders of unnecessary improv.  Almost every action warrants an observation aloud from one of them and it’s rarely needed.  At its worst, the improv tap-dances on the line of breaking character, but it never falls all the way over.  Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, meanwhile, run away with as much of the movie as they can carry.  Just about every review has highlighted McKinnon as a live-wire of unstable electricity that you can’t take your eyes off of lest she explode when you aren’t looking.  Jones, who’s undoubtedly taken the brunt of the online harassment before and after the movie’s release, effortlessly offers the heart the movie sometimes strains for in the scenes between Wiig and McCarthy.  She’s the only one with her head below the clouds and a better appreciation of the world of the living than the world of the dead.  The trailers simply don’t do her justice.

When we do see the Ghostbusters together, the gears mesh and the movie works.  I hope this earns a sequel because I’d love to see them again when they don’t have the murky swamp of origin stories to slog through.

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Reason enough to see it.

Where’d the logo come from? Who’d they borrow the hearse from? Why are they called “Ghostbusters”?  There’s an explanation for damn near every angle of the Ghostbusters lore and process. Yet it still forgets that proton packs don’t destroy ghosts by the end. It never bothers explaining how they can afford rent, a steady stream of new equipment or multiple Papa John’s pies when they only actually capture one ghost in the entire movie and don’t become an honest-to-God business until the end credits.

Ghostbusters is at its best when it stops trying to be Ghostbusters and relaxes into being a Ghostbusters movie.  That probably sounds daft, but hear me out.

As opposed to struggling out a like-but-different romantic angle, this Ghostbusters is about old wounds and the need to be accepted. Wiig and McCarthy’s characters wrote a book on the paranormal long before the events of the movie, and sometime in between, Wiig turned her back on ghosts and pursued a more respectable academic career.  The rest of the movie sees the pair begrudgingly working together again, reminiscing about being the weird “Ghost Girls” in high school and each coming to terms with being a hero in a field most don’t believe exists.  Whenever the movie spends time on this plot, it clicks. Almost. All of the scenes work, despite some injuries sustained from desperate improv.  All of the scenes, except one.  Kristen Wiig wants to be respected, accepted.  When a famous debunker of the paranormal shows up demanding to see a ghost, she threatens to open a ghost trap right there at HQ. The others helpfully point out how stupid and dangerous that would be, but she doesn’t listen and opens it.  The contents explode, throwing the debunker clean out the window and presumably killing him.  The novelization promises he survived, apparently, but the movie certainly makes no guarantee.  He’s never seen or heard from again and the police arrive immediately thereafter.  Nobody’s charged with manslaughter, of course. That just wouldn’t be funny.  And the movie chugs on. Considering who plays the debunker, it could be taken as a hysterical flourish of dark comedy, but this is not a dark comedy. Wiig’s character killed a man and nobody seems to have a problem with that.  It’s a whiplash-inducing shift in tone, even if the movie manages to soft-shoe away from it.

The idea of the city of New York, and even Homeland Security, privately approving but publicly condemning the Ghostbusters offers a fresh take on the series’s problem with authority.  But outside of some laughs over a fake arrest and the glad-handing mayor, all it does is drain the movie of conflict.  Besides Wiig and McCarthy sorting out their relationship, the only obstacle in the entire movie is the bad guy.  It wouldn’t be so noticeable if this weren’t an origin story where frequent lip-service is paid to nobody believing in ghosts and the public not taking them seriously.  A moment at the end about the city showing their love for the new-found heroes despite being discredited by the government doesn’t hit as hard as it should because the Ghostbusters didn’t really have to fight the government in the first place.  Just a lonely, angry little man.

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Pictured: Neil Casey, kinda

The villain (Neil Casey) seems to be the only actor staying on-book, which only makes him sound stiff and out-of-place by comparison.  But having a fellow believer in the paranormal, who was ridiculed and ostracized for his beliefs, is an intriguing parallel to Wiig and McCarthy’s story.  The movie doesn’t do anything with that, but the dots are sitting right next to each other and it provides some kind of resonance, along with something we haven’t seen before in a Ghostbusters movie.

Which is all the more disappointing when the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t cameos pop up, an old line is clunkily repurposed in a new context and a streams are crossed to destroy another 100-foot tall advertisement.  If the movie didn’t keep tipping its hat to the original, there would’ve been riots. If it followed the original note-for-note, there would’ve been war.  Again, it’s a thankless movie, but it never finds the right stride, at least not for long.  Only one of the cameos means anything in the plot, but had they just given the lines to another character who already served a similar purpose in the story, the movie would’ve felt more deliberate and less desperately scatterbrained.

And that’s probably the best way to describe it – scatterbrained.  Paul Feig delivered action and comedy with adept aplomb in 2015’s Spy,  but here he seems lost.  The final showdown in Times Square is easily the weakest part of the film and the most illustrative.  Any prior rules set about ghostbusting get thrown under a bus in the name of half-hearted callbacks and cool special effects.  Ordinary pocket knives pop ghost balloons, which, judging by their explosion, are actually filled with helium.  Each Ghostbuster gets their own McKinnon-built gadget to unleash slow-mo hell on the undead hordes, gadgets which destroy spirits entirely, making proton packs and ghost traps wholly obsolete. The villain single-handedly possesses an entire army.  The comedy runs out of room, so characters make some by pausing to deliver an insult or a reference as something horrifying or dangerous is presumably charging for them off-screen. The script frantically sets up pay-offs it forgot to sneak in earlier, like the nuclear capabilities of Ecto-1.  And the visual effects swarm almost fast enough to make sense.  New York briefly returns to the 1970s.  An ambiguous blue mist covers the ghostly armies so compositors and animators wouldn’t have to worry about keeping hundreds of creatures straight.  The trailers pretty much show every paranormal entity that doesn’t look just like a human painted blue.  At one point McCarthy trash-talks an off-screen ghoul and when we see the opposite angle, there’s nothing there but the dissipating mist.

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This is a pretty good litmus test.

From top-to-bottom, there’s a bit of an identity crisis.  Most of the supporting cast plays it like they’re in an SNL Digital Short, where an exaggerated performance isn’t only welcomed but required.  Whenever someone’s talking too loud, Chris Hemsworth covers his eyes.  The fact that he’s survived into adulthood is perhaps the movie’s biggest lapse in reality.  He’s funny, for what it’s worth, but at the expense of any suspended disbelief.  The soundtrack features four versions of Ray Parker, Jr.’s iconic theme song and the movie itself manages to include yet another, but the only one besides the original that gets any attention before the credits roll is the hands-down worst of the bunch (Fallout Boy feat. Missy Elliott).  Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 featured the theme song, even a Run-DMC cover, but the rest of the soundtrack was loosely connected pop songs of the era.  Yet the reboot seems almost slavishly devoted to the Ghostbusters theme, as if we’ll forget what we’re watching otherwise.  But another 80s pop song shows up, “Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge, for no other reason than to show just how nutty McKinnon’s character is, but undercuts it by her mistaking the artist for Devo.  Ghostbusters leans on reference-in-place-of-jokes more than a few times by the end, calling out everything from Patrick Swayze to Jaws (which is both the funniest reference and the closest to organic).

Ghostbusters is a modern movie, or rather two modern movies – a comedy and a comic book. Casual breaks to let the cast riff on Chinese food are great when the stakes of the story are no bigger than a fixing a friendship.  But it’s a bit out of place when the entire world is only a couple scenes away from collapse.  Likewise, when each of the ‘busters gets a badass moment in the sun with their weapon-of-choice, it’s a thrill.  But when they start flipping, rolling and whipping their toys around like gunslingers, it rings hollow.  It even has not only a post-credits scene setting up a (ballsy-as-hell) sequel, but a mid-credits scene and an inter-credits dance number.  Feig never quite reconciles the two movies.  The comic book movie overwhelms him and the comedy enables.

That said, I liked it.

Like most summer blockbusters today, Ghostbusters folds like a cheap suit if you so much as squint at it.  And considering the original is my favorite movie, a movie I’ve spent 20-some years squinting at, I was going to squint at the reboot.  It’s no classic, though no movie ever is within two weeks of its release, but few movies ever are.

The original nearly wasn’t.  Many times over.  Scenes of Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray playing completely unrelated hobos and talking about sports weren’t only written, but shot.  You can find them in the Deleted Scenes of any Ghostbusters release since the advent of DVD.  Crossing the streams to close the interdimensional door and defeat Gozer wasn’t in the script.  When everyone got to the rooftop set, Ivan Reitman realized they never decided how they’d end the actual confrontation.  Someone remembered a joke about crossing the streams earlier in the movie and voila. There was enough improv to make it dangerous.

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Emphasis on “dangerous.”

Ghostbusters was a happy accident a bunch of talented people made together.  It was a million small decisions somehow they didn’t screw up.  Reitman has said in interviews since that their greatest advantage was naivete.

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Emphasis on “accident.”

The reboot isn’t naive and there’s no way it could’ve been.  Two movies, two animated series, a video game reunion and thirty years of expectations guaranteed it knew exactly what it was doing.

And considering the first cut was four hours long, it had just as many small decisions to make.

In the end, the reboot makes more decisions right than wrong.

 

The Ghostbusters are the highlight of the movie.  Their energy is infectious and the chemistry is plain to see.  Andy Garcia is the stand-out of the supporting cast and a worthy successor as mayor of New York to the late, great David Margulies.  Ed Begley, Jr. is an unexpected but lovely surprise.  The cameos, while almost entirely unnecessary, do manage to tug at some nostalgic strings (especially the appropriately subtle nod to the sorely missed Harold Ramis).  The uniforms, the gear and the Ecto-1 buzz look phenomenal.  Even if the sense of humor is more modern than I was hoping, it’s still a funny movie.  McKinnon and Jones earn the most laughs, often without even trying.  When it wants to be, Ghostbusters can be downright creepy, throwing in some kid-friendly jumpscares for good measure.  The special effects are dazzling, if overwhelming. The score by Theodore Shapiro manages to pay homage to Elmer Bernstein’s original and include an orchestrated take on the Ghostbusters theme that’ll give you goosebumps.  It all works together to conjure a little of the Ghostbusters magic I grew up with.

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There it is.

And in the end, when the credits rolled and that old theme played, I couldn’t help but smile.

Hearing little kids, boys and girls, sing along in the theater was pretty neat, too.

 

I have several t-shirts with the logo on it.  Somewhere in my basement is the Real Ghostbusters Ecto-1 that turned green because the kid who owned it before me buried it in his yard for reasons he will likely take to the grave.  In high school, I wrote my own Ghostbusters 3 and it wasn’t worth the paper I stole from the library to print it on.

I liked Ghostbusters.

And I’m pretty sure my childhood is still intact.

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Ghostbusters (2016)

  1. It’s interesting reading the two “Ghostbusters” posts in reverse order, as I just did. The ruining-your-childhood/male insecurity/girl power/reboot vs. sequel, etc… bits of course have been done to death. But what I found interesting was the question of ‘comedy’. I generally agree with your take on the 2016 film. While watching, like you, I was entertained. But afterwards, looking back, I couldn’t really remember what entertained me and why, and was mostly left with a feeling of “Was that necessary?”

    Back to the question of comedy, though. Is the original Ghostbusters more than a comedy? Interestingly, Box Office Mojo lists it as “Horror Comedy” which is, of course, still comedy. I think the question of it being a funny horror movie or a scary comedy is a bit immaterial really, though. To follow your metaphor, can a sports car have four doors? What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

    However, I think one way in that the 2016 film can be seen as ‘only a comedy’ while the original is ‘something more’ comes into focus with your review; and your finding, as I did, that starting with the amusing but not-grounded-in-any-kind-of-reality tour guide, the immediate laugh always won out, over plot or character. Farce wins out, to put it simply. Is that a bad thing? I think we can agree that it weakens the film overall, because any laugh becomes a ‘quick’ one. Sometimes, things are funny when we care. When we take a moment to laugh and then catch our breath.

    The tone certainly is not accidental. When Feig was pressed on the female crew, he replied he just picked the funniest people he knew, which is what they did in the original. Well put. Except, not exactly true. It’s well known, for instance that John Candy was originally set to play Louis; but his ideas on the character just didn’t fit the story, and he was dropped. I think we can agree John Candy was one of the funniest actors around. His scenes as an over-the-top German with beloved canine friends would no doubt have been hilarious. But in one of those serendipitous acts that made the original a classic, they passed. Because they wanted to tell a story. Ackroyd had hundreds of pages of story to tell. And so the priority generally went 1) Story 2) Characters 3) Laughs. Not that the plot of Ghostbusters is the Illiad; but generally, when the question came down to one or the other, that seems to be rule that was followed: if the laugh weakens the story or the character, it doesn’t win out (Dream Ghost scene excepted, I guess).

    The reboot priority settings seem to be 1) Laughs 2) Characters 3) ?????. And that’s not necessarily bad. Plenty of movies do well prioritizing laughs above all else. Not every comedy needs anything more than a threadbare plot. But I think there are instances, like this one, where forcefully being ‘just a comedy’ hurts… the comedy.

    In the end, the film certainly didn’t strike a tone with audiences. GB2016 is already in digital distribution, thus my revisiting it. It wasn’t a disaster for Sony, nor did it make them any money whatsoever. The original was the biggest comedy of the 1980s. The reboot won’t list among the dozen biggest movies of the year, or even the top 20 if we look internationally, since the Chinese market actually apparently *is* afraid of ghosts.

    Even the vaunted social angle, like most of the movie, falls apart a little if you squint at it a bit. “Girls can do anything they want” is an uplifting message. The meta-message “Girls can do anything when a rich middle aged white guy decides to make an all-female team because the male team everyone wants isn’t available” is the plot of a “League of their Own.” Which was set in the 1940s. As another review stated, the female cast isn’t the only thing the film brings to the table. It does, however, end up being its only real reason for existing.

    That said, like you, I enjoyed the movie. The kids especially seem to like it. The ones that saw it, since many people I spoke to avoided taking their kids since a Feig/McCarthy “Ghostbusters” seemed likely to be inappropriate for anyone under 13. But the marketing failure is something that can be discussed another day. (Those trailers. Yikes)

    The thing is, the kids would also have liked a version of the movie that cost a third as much, had a bit slower pace, and didn’t try to be a Summer Blockbuster. Perhaps that’s what being a “modern” movie means now though. We can’t have a hint of a church being stepped on and a few cars crashing. We need city blocks destroyed and buildings exploding brick-by-brick. Ghostbusters 2016 has a heart that was in the right place. But it never slowed down from the joke marathon or sfx barrage long enough to find a soul.

    Like

    1. This comment’s almost as long as the review. Thanks for posting it. The back-to-back pieces about Ghostbusters do sort of work together on accident. I need to watch the reboot again to see if my feelings have changed.

      Like

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