Monday, December 19, 2016

I Finally Watched the New "Ghostbusters"

Let's get a couple of the caveats out of the way first. Yes, I do have a good deal of nostalgia for the original "Ghostbuster" movies, but mostly for the second one, which was rerun far more often on television, and therefore the one that I am the most familiar with. Yes, I am a fan of Paul Feig's movies, and rooted for the success of the new version from the moment that I heard it was announced. If Bill Murray wouldn't agree to come back, going in a new direction with the franchise sounded like the next best thing.

So when I tell you that the new "Ghostbusters" movie is pretty bad, it comes from a place of disappointment rather than vitriol. However, the new "Ghostbusters" is not terrible, If Sony wants to continue the series, I think it's actually quite salvageable in the right hands. The movie isn't bad because the leads are all female. The four comediennes are the best thing about the new "Ghostbusters." Nor is the movie bad because the material no longer works in the present day, with the long shadow of the 1985 original hanging over its head. The 2016 "Ghostbusters" could have been a perfectly decent summer comedy if the filmmakers had been more confident about what they were doing.

First, let's start with the good. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy play a pair of scientists, Erin and Abby. The two used to be friends, and wrote a book on the paranormal together, but drifted apart. When Abby starts selling the book on Amazon, Erin fears for her career as a physics professor. However, the discovery of actual hauntings going on in New York prompts the two of them to team up again, along with inventor Jillian Holtzmann and MTA worker Patty Tolan, to do some ghostbusting. So, what we have here is a total reboot of the franchise from the ground up. The original Ghostbusters do not exist in this universe, even though there are numerous callbacks, and nearly all the major cast members (and Ozzy Osbourne) make terrible cameos. That's the movie's biggest mistake: trying to pander to the old fans without actually giving them anything that they want.

The movie spends way too much time evoking the original film. It actually does just fine when it's laying out the basic relationships among the major characters and letting them test weapons and chase ghosts. However, everything keeps grinding to a halt to have another cameo or another callback. Pretty much everything iconic from the first movie gets referenced in one way or another, from ECTO-1 to the firehouse to the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. And the references are clumsy and terrible. The last act in particular starts feeling less like a plot and more like a delivery system for awkward nostalgia. If the filmmakers wanted to bring back all of these familiar faces, it would have been easy enough to make the film an actual sequel. By going to reboot route, but leaning so heavily on the older film, the 2016 "Ghostbusters" is far too transparently trying to mine existing goodwill from the existing fanbase.

This really impacts how much Paul Feig and his collaborators are able to do with the original elements in the movie. Frankly, the story is very half baked, and there are too many characters like the idiot beefcake secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), whose dialogue needs fine tuning. I haven't heard this much technobabble outside of "Star Trek." However, the ensemble is excellent and consistently watchable. Nobody plays a sad sack like Kristen Wiig and I could watch Melissa McCarthy complain about her won ton soup all day. Kate McKinnon steals most of her scenes, playing Hotlzmann as an unrepentant weirdo. Leslie Jones, who I'm not familiar with, had me a little worried at the start because of her over-the-top brashness. She won me over quickly, though, once it became clear she existed to be a counterbalance to the science nerdiness of the other three. I would have loved to have gotten a little more character development, some better dialogue, some bigger stakes. I would have loved to see them all in a better film, period.

Alas, I suspect there was no time or budget for it. "Ghostbusters" feels remarkably slapdash and hurried, with no shortage of clever little moments, but very inconsistently. There are big action scenes and lots of fancy CGI ghosts, but the visuals are garish and largely derivative of the prior films. The Ghostbusters keep being put into scenarios that ought to generate some good humor, like a metal concert and a meeting with the mayor (Andy Garcia), but everything falls flat. Many of the jokes are clearly improvised where they should have been more tightly scripted. I can't even summon up the energy to talk about the mundane villain, the numerous missed opportunities, or Slimer. Frankly, I just don't think that Paul Feig was ready for a project of this size with so much cultural baggage attached.

I suspect that the less you know about the original "Ghostbusters," the more you'll like the new version. Frankly, I just hope the movie's failures don't wind up hurting the talent associated with it, because I know they're all capable of much better than this.


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