Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghostbusters (***)

Directed by Paul Feig


Grounded in the shockingly politicized release of Paul Feig's remake of Ghostbusters is this cold truth: we didn't need a remake of Ghostbusters. That said, we also didn't need a remake of Point Break, Annie and we CERTAINLY didn't need a third iteration of the character Spider-Man in less than a decade. Studios have spent most of this millennium going all-in on remakes and sequels, putting little trust in original content, so to the degree to which we do want to see a remake of an old, beloved film, why not mix it up? Why not take the all-male cast and make it all-female? Of all the remakes in all the world that we have sat through for over a decade now, why is Paul Feig's Ghostbusters the one that has brought on the most ire from gate-keeping superfans who wish to keep their favorite movie pure? Now is the time that they decide to become righteous about commercial regurgitation? The year-long campaign against this film has puzzled me from the beginning, not only because the gender dynamics behind it are nauseating, but mostly because the concept of a comedy about chasing ghosts being sacred is incredibly silly. Any prestige that the 1984 Ghostbusters film had was undone by Ghostbusters II five years later, not by this remake over twenty years later. So, with that out of the way, we are now allowed to talk about the film itself, which is funny in a very broad, inclusive way and still manages to be clever with its humor. It's self-awareness is used as a crutch at times, but with the talent of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, whether or not the film is funny should not be up for debate. Especially considering that Paul Feig is behind the camera, a director who has excelled in allowing women to be funny entirely on their own terms.

I'll admit that I did not know that this new Ghostbusters was a complete from-scratch rebuild, and not a spin-off/sequel of sorts residing in the same universe as the 1984 film. Peter Venkman and Ray Stantz aren't walking through that door. Instead, we're introduced to two new protagonists, Erin (Wiig) and Abby (McCarthy), two girlhood friends who bonded over their adolescent obsession with the paranormal. They even went as far as to write a book on the subject, which was published without much fanfare. Into adulthood, Erin has distanced herself from her lifelong ghost interest - and from Abby - to pursue a career in academia, which created a rift in their friendship that seemed almost irreparable. On the brink of tenure at Columbia, Erin discovers that Abby has republished the book in an effort to scrounge up petty cash for her ongoing ghost research. Perplexed, Erin visits Abby for the first time in years at the low-rent community tech college where Abby performs her experiments. Abby isn't pleased to see her former friend, and along with her colleague, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), they mock Erin for her pursuit of tenure instead of her dreams. Abby agrees to unlist their book if Erin joins her and Holtzmann on a trip to a tourist location that is claiming to be haunted by ghosts. Begrudgingly, Erin joins where they witness the presence of a malevolent ghost living at site of the home of an old billionaire who, legend said, locked his unhinged daughter in the basement. When that daughter appears to the three scientists and then proceeds to vomit all over Erin, the three women are ecstatic - Erin especially, whose enthusiasm for ghosts is reignited. And good thing, cause when video of her proclaiming the existence of ghosts goes viral, she loses her job at Columbia and is then available to work with Abby and Holtzmann full-time.

Cash-strapped, they rent out some space above a Chinese restaurant that Abby patronizes and are even able to hire Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a dim-witted beauty who wears lensless glasses and can't seem to perform even the most menial tasks without disastrous results. **Quick aside: the character Kevin has become another lightning rod of controversy surrounding the release of Ghostbusters, as if the sheer stupidity of Kevin is, in someway, a reverse-sexist depiction of men - another instance of the film's feminist agenda against the men who feel this reboot so unnecessary. But Feig knows what he's doing here. Kevin's stupidity is so extreme, so illogical, and also such an obvious commentary on the unfairness of gender portrayal in studio films. Those who do not understand how Kevin, and Hemsworth's performance of him, is brilliant satire of gender dynamics in Hollywood are blind to their own misogynistic agenda. The End.** More importantly, they get a fourth member of the team in the form of MTA worker, Patty (Jones), who witnesses a ghost on the tracks of the 6 train and immediately decides to quit her job and start hunting ghosts with the three scientists. With Erin and Abby leading the show, Holtzmann gifting the group with helpful ghost-catching gadgets, and Patty providing a hearse as general transportation, the four women begin to investigate the sudden surge of paranormal activity popping up throughout New York City. Why has Manhattan suddenly become such a hotbed for aggressive specters? The newly-minted Ghostbusters become determined to find out.

There's a lot of plot involving a disgruntled hotel janitor named Rowan (a solid, pointed comedic performance from Neil Casey) who has not only read Erin and Abby's book but is using it to unleash the demons across the city. There's even a scene where all the important characters visit an Ozzy Osbourne concert that is inexplicably held in the middle of the afternoon. This is an instance in which the 2016 film falls behind the 1984 classic. The screenplay, by Feig and Katie Dippold, isn't very strong and its character building relies on easy contrivance. Feig is a superior writer and filmmaker to Judd Apatow, but he still shares some of the annoying habits of his former creative partner. Mostly, he's too dependent on the comedic talent of his cast to keep a film afloat, and too many of the comedic situations are born out of improvisation that doesn't exactly run concurrent with the tone of a scene. At its worst, this Ghostbusters film depends on unearned sentimentality for effect, which is something that Feig is usually smart enough to stay away from (before you say anything, the sentimentality on Freaks and Geeks was definitely EARNED). These ticks haven't really mattered for Feig, because he's always had the dependable McCarthy to head all his films, and the star power of Wiig and the overall comedic exuberance of McKinnon and Jones is enough to propel Ghostbusters into a wonderful film experience. But the screenplay to Harold Ramis' classic film was more taut, more consistent in its scene-by-scene progression and had material that the helped the cast excel, as opposed to letting the cast excel on their own.

That might be nitpicking, I'll admit. When you have the kind of cast that this Ghostbusters film has, it makes sense to let them roam free, and the movie is at its best when these four funny women are allowed to be themselves. Wiig and McCarthy's relationship is the crux of the film's story, and one kudos I will throw the screenplay's way is its unwillingness to tie a male love interest into the their already complicated friendship. Abby's arc is learning to trust Erin after the initial abandonment, and Erin's arc is how far she's willing to go to win back that trust. The two comediennes have taken two opposed roads in their post-Bridesmaids careers. McCarthy has become a bonafide movie star, one of the few sure things in Hollywood, while Wiig has experimented in independent film, broadening her range as an actress. They're both simplifying things here, playing these roles with an incredibly endearing tenderness, while also leaving most of the comedic heavy lifting to their two co-stars. McKinnen has been an SNL mainstay for most of this decade, the only real cast member left at this point with any real name recognition, and yet Ghostbusters is her first major film role. Her Holtzmann is so unhinged and so eccentric, an interesting twist on a role based on Harold Ramis' mild-mannered scientist in the original film. That the character is tinged with queerness (though not outright and open) is fascinating to see in a Hollywood film, where most gay characters are left to only being weak victims or raving queens. Personally, it was the work of Leslie Jones that I found to be the funniest in Ghostbusters. Her feisty everywoman Patty is a terrific compliment to the no-nonsense actions of Erin and Abby, as well as the anarchy of Holtzmann. Her reactions are just as funny as her pinpoint quips.

Ghostbusters is littered with funny cameos, including Andy Garcia as a vain, obtuse NYC mayor, Cecily Strong as a busy-body mayor's assistant, and Ed Begley Jr. as a mousy business owner looking to procure the Ghostbusters' services. **Spoiler alert: There's even some appearances by some familiar faces from earlier in the franchise.** The film is pretty good at finding that balance between being its own film and paying its respect to the original film. There's a lot of reverence here. The first Ghostbusters film truly is magnificent in how it so seamlessly blended comedy with the paranormal. Have we ever seen a ghost story be that funny? Like I said, continually doing remakes is the kind of cannibalistic behavior that has left most of the general public fleeing the cinemas and heading to TV where original content gets much more respect. For whatever reason, Hollywood isn't content on letting its best films create their own legacies, they want to dictate it for themselves. So in a lot of ways, the crazy anti-Ghostbusters lobby is a monster of their own creation, a legion of nerds who are so used to be catered to now lashing out when some creativity is shown. More cynically, American audiences are still implicitly against the idea of women in films doing things that men usually do, and that has proven itself to be true time and time again. I'm rooting for this new Ghostbusters film, even though box office numbers have been very unimpressive. I guess the market has chosen to take its money elsewhere, which is a shame, because they'll miss out on a truly terrific comedy, led by some of the funniest people in the business. They also just happen to be women.

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