Though not without issues, Ghostbusters is most likely going to be 2016’s funniest comedy and more than stands its ground to the ’84 original.
Ghostbusters had basically everything going against it. It’s a remake of a highly-revered 1980s comedy that starred a bunch of outstanding comic actors in their prime, that I personally find to be just kinda alright outside of those actors but is regarded as a bona-fide classic by everyone else, and Hollywood’s track record of remaking classics has been (and most likely will continue to be if the new Ben Hur is even a fraction as ghastly as it looks)… well, it’s been shit, quite frankly. It’s a gender-swap remake, which meant that OF COURSE the discourse surrounding it would be predominately toxic and misogynistic, and that said discourse would overtake and most likely overshadow the film itself. Meanwhile, Sony’s marketing department appear to be on a mission to kill the movie by their own damn selves, releasing terrible trailer after terrible trailer, doing nothing to dissuade everybody’s worse fears – that this would be completely forgettable save for an outstanding cast.
The best-case ending to this mess would be for Ghostbusters to be an instant all-time classic, one that surpassed the original in every single way so indisputably that we can all talk about the film on its own merits, as well as proving the worst of the naysayers wrong. I mean, that was never going to happen, but this story still has a happy ending anyway. Ghostbusters is a damn, damn, damn great film, regardless of whether one tries to hold it up to the original or not, although it is faithful but not slavishly-devoted to that first go-around. In fact, it even manages to improve on some areas of the first film, and I’m even feeling rather confident in this being the funniest comedy that I’ll see this year. That can be interpreted as damning with faint praise given the current state of the feature-length comedy, but the fact is that I was laughing throughout pretty much the whole film and in outright hysterics at many points and that’s something you can’t dispute with any qualifiers.
Primarily this is thanks to the absolutely outstanding cast. Paul Feig at this point has one of the best eyes for casting in the film business today and that talent once again pays massive dividends. Chris Hemsworth gets most of the film’s biggest laughs since he, as the Ghostbusters’ legendarily-dim receptionist Kevin, has the “Jason Statham in Spy” role, but he also brings along a “Zac Efron in Bad Neighbours” level of charisma that makes every single one of his exchanges – Kevin is a man who took the lenses off of his glasses because they kept getting dirty, and seemingly has absolutely no idea of how a phone works – legitimate gut-busters. But the film also knows that Kevin is not the star of the show and so his sparing usages carry more of an impact, as well as keeping the focus on the titular quarter of women.
And what a quartet of women! Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones have somehow managed to harness the top-of-their-game power that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson – who all, with the obvious exception of Ramis, make brilliantly-chosen cameos – had in the original for themselves, and the result is a joy to watch. The film is never better than when it allows any combination of the four to play off of one another, and their chemistry makes their various relationships feel lived-in and genuine, with McCarthy and Wiig, as childhood friends Abby and Erin who were brought together by a shared belief in the paranormal but grew apart as time went by, especially going a long way to paper over various shortcomings in the script department.
But the standout performance, and even just using the word “standout” still feels like I’m short-changing it, is Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann. Holtzmann is arguably the most short-changed of the main cast by the script, lacking many spotlight scenes and being the one person in the main cast without a character arc to go on – although everybody else gets one, which is one area where this new version of Ghostbusters triumphs over the original – but McKinnon compensates for this by being a charismatic tour-de-force. She finds the perfect delivery for every single one of her mad-scientist techno-babble monologues, she hits the perfect physical or facial reaction to nearly every situation, especially so when she’s not even the focus of said situation, and she exudes a magnetic screen presence from the second she enters the film and that does not let up even when the credits roll. It’s an instant star-is-born turn, the kind of which I haven’t seen in a long time, and her every second on-screen is pure magnificence.
Again, though, although McKinnon is the standout, all four of the leads put in phenomenal work and strike up lightning chemistry with one-another. That sense that these are fully-developed characters who all genuinely like, or quickly grow to like, each other does a great job at conjuring up the rhythm required for the jokes to fly as, despite this being a 12a/PG-13 movie, this is still very much a Paul Feig film. His films are quotable and have some choice lines, but their humour mainly stems from the way the cast play off of one another, the joy in watching women, actual women characters instead of one-joke stereotypes, interact with each other and drop well-timed funny lines often out of nowhere, rather than blindingly obvious “set-up, punchline, repeat” dynamics or lavish setpieces with big payoffs. The script here, co-written by The Heat’s Katie Dippold, is no different, just stripped of all of the cursing, so those who are all for that, like myself, are most likely going to have a whale of a time because, as it turns out, the Feig formula still works once you strip out the creative cursing.
Praise must also be given to his direction, too. Whilst the comedy is as well-paced and deftly-handled as you’d expect from the director of Bridesmaids and Spy – it’s even well under two hours long before the credits stuff kicks in, which is admirable restraint for Feig – he also manages to put in relatively-strong work in the action and tension departments. It’s not brilliant, by any means – or, to be blunt, he’s no Edgar Wright or Phil Lord & Chris Miller – but he does a better job at committing to the horror aspects of what’s ostensibly a horror-comedy than the original did outside of the Dana apartment haunting. The action sequences, whilst CG heavy and weirdly framed rather like an arena-fight in a videogame come the finale, are solid enough to provide the fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing payoffs that the film’s emotional hook requires. They’re not brilliant, but they don’t bungle things and since by the time the finale rolls around and all the film really needs to do is not bungle the payoff, that’s more than good enough given the current state of comedy (The Boss was just last month let’s not forget). Plus, and as with The Heat and Spy, the film thankfully keeps the jokes running during the action-filled finale.
On the subject of action: this movie is going to mean so much to an entire generation of young women. It’s not just that this Ghostbusters is being fronted purely by women, and is aiming for and mostly succeeds at walking that same thin line between adult comedy and family adventure that the original Ghostbusters had, it’s also that the film mostly minimises the gender stuff. That’s not to say that it’s not there – the film’s villain is a creepy misogynistic loner who blames his lack of respect and low standing in life on other people that he sees as “garbage that needs to be cleaned” and is trying to break the seal between the living and the ghosts in an attempt to bring forth an apocalypse that he will lead and return the Earth to its apparent “glory days,” whilst the Ghostbusters get some sexist comments during their attempts to prove their legitimacy – but it’s mostly in the background. Instead, for the most part, these ladies get to kick ass, bust ghosts, and engage in comic hijinks without gender-based question, just like the boys did in the original. This may not sound like a big deal, because it ideally shouldn’t be, but it most definitely will be for a hell of a lot of people, especially when the many money shots start coming along and that’s worth applauding.
But this all said, Ghostbusters ain’t perfect. Much like with the original, the film actively strains to get to its third act fireworks. Although the jokes don’t let up, there is a point where the film noticeably shifts from a rather low-key and slightly aimless hang-out movie into a high-stakes fate-of-the-world blockbuster and the transition is rather awkward and the film sort of creaks under the additional weight, although the payoffs still work. Abby and Erin’s relationship, meanwhile, doesn’t quite carry the emotional weight that the film thinks it does, primarily due to the script underwriting it, although Wiig and McCarthy do manage to reduce the damage thanks to their chemistry. Every other call-back or shout-out to the original Ghostbusters lands with a bit of a thud, the rest are rather cute and very occasionally genuinely funny, whilst the CGI ghosts alternate between enjoyably cartoony (most everything outside of a big brawl in the finale) and surprisingly awkward and cheap-looking (the big brawl in the finale).
More of an issue, though, is that of Leslie Jones’ Patty Jenkins. Despite supposedly originally being written for McCarthy until Jones’ audition convinced Feig and Dippold to pull some rewrites on the character, Patty is pretty much just a Loud Black Woman. Her knowledge of New York City thanks to her job at the MTA positions her as the street-smart one in a group of college-educated eggheads, whilst most of her jokes and reactions involve yelling and/or shouting. In fairness, Patty does get an arc to go on – as she gets over her fear of ghosts and embraces her role as a useful Ghostbuster despite not being a scientist – she gets genuine laughs on a regular basis, and Jones is trying through hell and high water to add some legitimate dimension and shading to her character (which she almost pulls off), but it’s still not great and still leans a little bit too much on that outdated stereotype than is comfortable. I have no doubt that this was absolutely unintentional on the part of Feig and Dippold, that the duo just wanted to give Jones her “McCarthy in Bridesmaids” moment, but it’s still unfortunate and could have been better thought through.
Yet, none of that detracts from the fact that I finished Ghostbusters, including its obligatory post-credits sequel tease because this is a blockbuster in the year 2016, immediately down for more films featuring this cast playing these characters interacting with each other. Sony are clearly desperate for this thing to become a franchise above all else – hence the snazzy new Ghostbusters spin-off studio logo during the opening credits – and couldn’t give a damn whether the film is great or not, and I finished Ghostbusters actively wanting that franchise to kick into high gear right now. This new Ghostbusters is a wonderful time at the movies, by far the funniest comedy of the year so far, and has set a bar that I’m finding hard to imagine anything else being able to beat this year. Other people far more boring than myself can get into the pointless debate of whether it’s as good as, better than, or anywhere close to the original, but this Ghostbusters more than deserves to stand as its own thing, cos it is that good.
And that’s really saying something, cos Sony’s notoriously awful handling of all product placement in their films is in full obnoxious effect here.
Callie Petch is seeing things running through their head.