On the undue burden of toxic fan bases, the impossibility of replicating formula, and the brilliance of Kate McKinnon
Ghostbusters Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, based on characters created by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Cecily Strong, Neil Casey, Michael Kenneth Williams, Matt Walsh and Andy Garcia
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 56 minutes / 2.35:1
July 15, 2016
(out of four)
From the sound of it, you'd think there was some major fundamental difference between the way Ghostbusters was made in 1984 - in concept, planning, casting - and the way its remake/reboot/whatever was made in 2016. Because this supposedly profound difference is all that's really been talked about. Curious, considering the formula was exactly the same in both cases. A team of university-funded paranormal researchers-turned-paranormal crimefighters. An established comedy director at the helm. A leading cast of Saturday Night Live veterans and other comedy luminaries. That's the blueprint.
Except for that part about the Ghostbusters being played by women this time instead of men, a fact that somehow qualifies as a controversy. I hesitate to even bring it up, but it's become such an intrinsic part of the surrounding narrative (to the extent that it was ingested meta-textually into the film itself) that I ultimately can't ignore it.
So here we are. The sad angry boys of my generation (and older) made their reactionary umbrage into a cause, and turned the triviality of a studio sci-fi comedy remake into a misogynist cause. For the record: When it's simply a matter of being against the idea of remake - of being cynical about franchise culture, of rampant plundering of existing properties - that's a reasonable point of view. But the sad internet boys - pockets of them scattered all over - made it explicitly clear that their objections were much more specific than that. Even if you anticipated some sort of pushback on those grounds, the openness of some of the angry anti-woman behavior and rhetoric was still pretty staggering. That a movie like this is controversial for such a reason - that the casting of two A-list stars and a pair of rising stars as the collective leads of a franchise movie is anything more than a detail - is embarrassing. Logically, there is no way to understand it. Perhaps 13-year-old boys (many of whom are in their mid-40s) have been the demographic apple of Hollywood's eye for so long that the entitlement is now pathological.
In any event, I bring all this up primarily to say that I can think of few better victories - for models of studio filmmaking in general, and for the quality level of 2016 studio tentpoles - than the prospect of this Ghostbusters not only being great, but being a gigantic hit. That it is, or will be, neither of those things is a disappointment not for the normal reasons that a so-so movie is disappointing, but for more frustrating ones. This isn't exactly a bad movie - in fact, there are bursts of greatness in it, particularly in the performances of Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth - but it's an often confused and lifeless one, with its occasional fits of inspiration often divorced from the actual premise. (An early scene of ghostbusting at a heavy metal concert, in which the ghosts are misunderstood as elaborate pyrotechnics, is a notable exception.) That its cast is the very least of its problems - and the primary reason for what successes it finds - is an important distinction. But the movie itself doesn't always seem to know when and where to find its sense of humor (which is so much more sporadic than past Paul Feig efforts), and really doesn't know how to deploy its ghosts and action spectacle. The grand finale, for example, is a blandly executed assemblage of ghost design concepts - few with any impact except as background set dressing - in which even the roles and purposes of the main characters become lost in a tedious (and geographically nonsensical) flurry of traffic jams and CGI.
To be clear, the movie's failure does not mean that its vitriolic opponents "won." After all, they still have to wake up as themselves every morning. It only means that there was an opportunity for something of a cinematic mic drop, and ultimately it didn't materialize. Maybe next time. (I realize "stick it to 'em" maybe isn't the healthiest reason to root for a movie ... but it's pretty cathartic, so hey why not.)
In the context of this "controversy," the film's most pertinent curiosity is its villain, the wormy hotel bellhop Rowan North (Neil Casey). Though he ostensibly fits the profile of plenty of movie bad guys before him, it's hard not to see him as an avatar for the film's own real-life opponents. He's the haughty, aloof, virginal loner prototype we imagine when we think of comment sections and subreddits. In movie tradition, he's a mad scientist; in this setting, he's one of those sad internet boys, taking his anger out on a world that doesn't acknowledge or appreciate him enough. A large part of me would have loved to see the movie take the character - and his accompanying meta-commentary - much farther. An unequivocal middle finger to those who declared war on the film before a single frame was shot. A two-hour diss track. Then again, I realize how counterproductive and self-serving such a confrontational strategy might be. But the character is ultimately such a feeble presence that it seems the film felt he was barely worth the effort. That Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold even felt the need to spend time halfheartedly establishing a "villain" for a movie with this premise seems ... well, very Ghostbusters 2-ish.
But the most puzzling thing of all is that the movie doesn't even seem entirely confident in what to do with all of its cast members - not an unusual problem for an ensemble movie, but a conspicuous one here, considering which of the cast shine and which are kind of left out to dry. Melissa McCarthy has done such better, more distinctive work with Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids), but here as Abby - the de-facto leader of the group, having toiled for years on her research in relative anonymity before her work finally begins to pay off - she plays it straight and buttoned-up, intentionally lacking the comic spirit of so many of her past characters but in doing so stripping the performance of the energy that makes her such an indelible performer. Good movie or bad movie, McCarthy is never boring ... except this time. Kristen Wiig fares somewhat better as Erin Gilbert, the other half of the fractured friendship that makes up the film's central emotional through-line. She and Abby were once partners in the paranormal arts - even co-authoring a book about the subject - but have gone their separate ways in the years since, Erin opting for the safer life of a tenured physics professor and, much to Abby's chagrin, becoming a bit of a wet blanket in the process. Wiig (and to an extent McCarthy) still makes for a strong presence, but they both fall victim to a not-uncommon tendency to make ensemble leads - characters around whom the madness of the plot revolves - so normal and straight-laced that they're not allowed to be interesting enough in their own right. (It's not surprising that Wiig's best moments are very Wiig-ish interpretations of lines, reactions and small moments that would have been nothing without her.)
Leslie Jones - as Patty, a shrewd subway clerk-turned-Ghostbuster - makes more of an impact, in part because she isn't roped into any larger, half-baked arc and can just punctuate the action or carry individual scenes, exactly the way a good supporting actor does. But it's fellow sidekick Kate McKinnon (as Holtzmann, genius engineer, tinkerer and Abby's research partner) who emerges as the MVP - and superstar, and American hero - that we all hoped she would be when she was first announced in the role, and that, as it turns out, the movie desperately needs. I can't even imagine what this movie would be without her. There are few recent performances that have had a similar transformational effect in every moment of screen time. Whatever tone any scene is going for, Holtzmann is there to disrupt it - to push against the veneer of decorum or normalcy, like a mischievous fly in an otherwise levelheaded ointment. Operating on a completely different level than anyone or anything else, McKinnon is a spectacular jolt of comic energy and eccentric magnetism. The movie practically seems made for her.
But the movie as a whole fails her - and fails its great cast in general. McKinnon's role is a terrific showcase, but this Ghostbusters incarnation doesn't do justice to it. (Or, for that matter, to Hemsworth, who pops up as the Ghostbusters' hilariously dumb secretary, and is so great that I now wish he would only do comedy and do it forever.)
It's not always simple to explain precisely why a movie does or doesn't work. The original Ghostbusters was relaxed and freewheeling and bedraggled, carrying an unusual concept and marching very decidedly to its own beat. Everything just kinda worked. Remaking a movie is a thankless task, if only because it's impossible to recreate any formula for success (intangible as they tend to be), or the conditions that created it. One could argue the best recourse would have been to reinvent this particular wheel - to not only cast these four women but go in a whole new direction with the core idea. Instead, the film finds itself in limbo - it tries to basically do the same thing as the '84 version, but with a bit more self-awareness and peppered with (usually forced) references to its predecessor. But the alchemy just didn't materialize this time.
It's never easy to inherit the name, history, and expectations of another movie. It's even harder to inherit a particularly nasty portion of a fan base going out of its way to dislike you. That's the misfortune Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, Jones, Feig and Dippold were dealt. It's unfortunate that the movie is as much of a mixed bag as it is, but the stakes should never have been so high in the first place.