It’s unfair to compare the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters to the 1984 original. That film was possessed of a singular type of chemistry and coincidence that remains impossible to quantize or replicate. Even the cast and the crew of the original was unable to do it for 1989’s Ghostbusters II. The new film is its own creation, even if it is outwardly and reverentially devoted to the original. It’s just as effortlessly funny, and the cast is just as solid. In some cases, its even better than the original, something that the legions of easily-offended “Ghostbros” aren’t going want to hear.
As before, we have a team made of three scientists and a civilian who have taken it upon themselves to combat the rising tide of supernatural mayhem threatening to engulf New York City. Drs. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) co-authored a book on ghosts years prior to the opening of the film, but while Erin has disavowed the book and tried to become a respectable professor, Abby has continued researching the paranormal alongside brilliant, mad (and brilliantly mad) scientist Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). When the sighting of an apparition brings the two friends together again, Erin’s belief in ghosts is rekindled, and the three go into business as ghost hunters. The trio becomes a quartet when they are joined by MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), who has an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City, and end up being “assisted” by their very pretty but very air-headed secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).
Oh, and if you didn’t catch it in the previous paragraph, all the Ghostbusters are women. This is more important to the audience than it ever is to the narrative, however. Director Paul Feig has made a career out of female-driven comedies that often toy with genre expectations, like The Heat or Spy (both of which also feature McCarthy). Ghostbusters is no different, and like those films, it isn’t a film about female characters but a film about characters who simply happen to be female. This shouldn’t be a radical concept in 2016, but given the unprecedented and disproportionately sexist backlash against the film that’s accompanied it since day one, that’s apparently the case.
We want revolution.
Feig and co-wrier Katie Dippold never make the film about the Ghostbusters being women, and that’s part of what makes it work so well. Aside from one character patronizingly referring to the Busters as “girls”, nobody questions their legitimacy because of their gender. This allows the characters to exist organically in their surroundings, to breathe and become their own creatures without constantly having to fight a battle on behalf of all women everywhere. There are no romantic subplots unless you count Erin’s quite understandable (but completely one-sided and awkward) crush on Kevin, and the film passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
A very large part of what makes the film feel so natural are the lead actresses, four of the most consistently funniest women working on screen today. McCarthy and Wiig have a very distinct chemistry, and they easily sell the relationship between Erin and Abby. Both characters are tailored to each actress’ comedic style without either seeming like another variation on their previous roles. Similarly, Leslie Jones riffs on the out-loud persona she’s cultivated during her time on Saturday Night Live, but Patty is a much richer and more complex character. She’s just as smart as the scientists she teams up with, but her knowledge comes more from practical experience than theory, and she helps ground the other three characters from becoming lost in what-ifs and scientific jargon. Even Chris Hemsworth displays a remarkable level of comic timing and physicality that breathes giddy life into his otherwise one-joke himbo.
The clear stand-out of the cast, however, is Kate McKinnon, proving once again why she’s been SNL’s most valuable player almost since her first season with the show. In the wrong hands, Hotlzmann could have been a wild caricature, but McKinnon gives her an easy, almost deadpan charm that makes her weirdness seem genuine and almost infectious. She effortlessly steals every scene she’s in, even with just a reaction shot from the side of the frame, and she has the same improvisational edge Bill Murray displayed in the original without any of the self-satisfied smarm. She delivers huge helpings of techno-babble with aplomb and a confidence that’s almost frightening in its solidity. Holtzmann is macabre, manic, and pansexually flirty in equal measures, and it's doubtful that anyone but McKinnon could have made her work so brilliantly well.
Who loves ya, baby?
What ends up keeping the film from truly flying high, however, is not the cast, the director, or the script but the unfortunate subtext of real life and cinematic constraints. A number of jokes from the trailers aren’t in the final cut of the film, and it’s glaringly obvious where they should have been. A number of editing cuts seem abrupt and haphazard, and it mars the pacing and flow of far too many scenes. It really seems as if the studio took the film at the last minute and cut bits out to keep the runtime as close to under two hours as they could (and Feig claims that his first cut clocked in at over four hours).
The film also has an unfortunate and completely unfair amount of baggage it has to deal with from the internet backlash against it, something it comments on repeatedly with everything from jokes about YouTube comments to having as its main antagonist a pasty and socially maladjusted geek named Rowan (played by Neil Casey) who plans to unleash spectral Armageddon on the world simply because he gets picked on by other people. On its own, this is fairly innocuous, and it plays out well over the course of the story, especially when compared to how the Busters have similarly been discounted and ridiculed by others for their work but have chosen to do something productive about it. But given the atmosphere in which the movie has been released, it takes on a metatextual and almost satirical vibe that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film and threatens to pull viewers almost completely out of the narrative. It's as if the Busters are literally fighting their real-life haters, and while that should be admirable given the circumstances, it prevents the film from existing purely and totally on its own.
I am the ghost of YouTube Comments Past…
A lot of that is forgiven during the climax, however, a thrilling, city-wide, well-choreographed, effects-heavy smack down that highlights the personalities of each of the Busters through something as seemingly simple as their choice of weapons (their arsenal is much more varied than the 1984 original). The reboot is never going to supplant the original, but it is a much more worthy successor to that film than either the official sequel or any of the embarrassing animated spin-offs that have been attempted over the years. Whether it's the ghosts that plague New York City, the specter of nostalgia, or even just the trolls of the Internet, these girls kick a whole lot of ass without ever once losing their sense of humor. If all reboots were this much fun, summer at the movies might not be quite as scary.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B