What’s the worst that Paul Feig could do?
Is his Sony-mandated property boost of Ghostbusters going to be any worse than Bobby Brown’s Ghostbusters II? I mean, we’ve been told that crossing the streams was baaaad, but I’m pretty sure we’d all agree that the Ghostbusters came, saw, and kicked the Stay Puft Marshmallow’s ass.
Allow me to back up. Spy hit theaters last weekend. As filming on Ghostbusters is set to commence later this month, there are a lot of press junkets for the Fox spy-com, and Feig’s been asked to explain time and again his take on the proton-packing franchise. Poor fool. No one’s asking him about his sensational Spy. No one’s positing how Spy might have been the terrific test run and proof of life we’ve been looking for with his upcoming work on Ghostbusters. Spy’s a cross-genre jamboree that happens to feature a star and a director at the peak of their respective potential. But, you know, they could go up from there.
Before we talk about Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2016, Spy, and the art of Paul Feig, we have to look at the long and haunting history of Ghostbusters III. In light of the sudden development of the female-led Ghostbusters reboot, it’s baffling to realize how moot nearly 20 years of sporadic production has become. One can only imagine the hefty Sony/Coca-Cola pre-production costs accrued over the years. Pete Venkman might have joked that the kids love ‘em, but Columbia Pictures loved the idea of a supernatural series even more. Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ivan Reitman tried time and time again to get a Ghostbusters III made. Ghostbusters Go to Hell. Ghostbusters Where Bill Murray Is Dead, based on an off-the-cuff Murray remark.
Nothing was helping Ghostbusters III get made: There were numerous drafts, rumors of Murray’s reluctance, countless start dates that never came to fruition … it was like some sort of possessed production. Eventually, the principals all moved on and grew up into other projects. Murray became an avant comic god, Ayrkoyd a crackpot metaphysical vodka spokesman, and Reitman a thoroughly mediocre director (Draft Day, Legal Eagles, Six Days, Seven Nights). And while 2009’s Sierra video game managed to reunite the cast, the pay-to-play experience was a regular-sized Twinkie by comparison to the original.
It wasn’t until last year when the franchise got the most traction it had seen in ages. In August, word broke that Paul Feig was in negotiations to direct a brand-new Ghostbusters film. Soon after the gossip emerged (and Ruben Fleischer and Phil Lord/Chris Miller took passes), it was confirmed that Feig was on board and planning an all-female version. Remember a sheepish Winston when he’s given a freshly used ghost trap as he’s welcomed to the Ghostbusters? That was Feig.
Then, last January, Sony announced a genuine cast featuring four in-demand comics: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. All terrific gag-busters. Sure, McCarthy’s abrasive charms aren’t for everyone, but they work more often than not (and you really have to see her in Spy). And what about McKinnon’s Justin Bieber impersonation and Wiig’s deformed sister on The Lawrence Welk Show skit on SNL? You’d have to be a great, big grouse to not find those funny in the slightest. And Leslie Jones, while she may be new to the scene and is still finding her voice on SNL, can at least say she scares Collin Jost and Michael Che on Weekend Update, and that’s always good news. My point being that not only is it extremely rare to see so many women head up a tentpole, but these four cast choices are extremely talented, likable, and strange in their own ways. They could make amazing Ghostbusters under the right circumstances.
But this is not the conversation we’ve seen online. While dissent is healthy, and yes, the business motives are dubious and look hungry at best, the discussions veered into gender-bashing waaaay too easily. It was all sexist, retro-authoritarian male rhetoric that wanted strictly dudes holding those packs. Another contingent of dislike stemmed from the supposedly lazy pitch of doing Ghostbusters, but, like, with chicks, man. Eek, girls, right?
While writing this, the title of the first comment thread to pop up on the new Ghostbusters IMDB page is “Burn In Hell Paul Feige.” The second, “I will never watch this ABOMINATION of a movie.” Another one: “Ghost bustiers.” To add insult to injury, even freaking Ernie Hudson, Winston himself, said the reboot was “wrong” before changing his tune. Total bro-tonic reversal.
But here’s the thing: These points, while legitimate to this current discussion, amount to a mostly meaningless way to talk about the new Ghostbusters. This isn’t a gender thing or a business thing at this point. The movie’s being made, at great cost, with four brand name actresses. Deal with it.
The conversation everyone should be having is if Paul Feig can direct this movie or not to a certain fanatical standard. Can Feig, known for riff-laden comedies, direct a loosey-goosey action comedy with supernatural elements, all while mining gold from funny stars at their professional peaks? In the most practical sense: no. Feig probably isn’t up to conscientiously crafting a pop culture landmark that honors and builds upon the Ghostbusters name. But who is?
The original’s too unique and too spontaneous. Too miraculous. In a 1984 EPK, Bill Murray compared ghost busting to trapping smoke in a Coke bottle with a baseball. That’s more or less the level of difficulty that Feig is up against, and frankly, no one can live up to that. As a director, his calling card is that he loves actresses, allows them to run wild, and has little to no discipline on display in his finished product. In Feig’s The Heat, there’s a deftly comic scene between McCarthy and Sandra Bullock bonding over far too much booze, and it comes across like there’s no writing or directing considered in that moment. It’s likely the product of hours of goofing off on set, capably assembled into a funny montage. The scene’s hilarious, for certain (Bullock drunkenly getting glass shards into her hand and McCarthy too plowed to care is the choice moment there), but Feig likely didn’t try that hard to make the scene. He likes to let people expand and contract around an outline while assembling stories with the simplest exposition and the plainest camerawork. It’s natural to worry when you consider Feig making a film that has to balance spoof with spectacle.
Perhaps it’s a tall order for Feig to make a comic masterpiece, and I’m not suggesting we should lower expectations here. I have a damn LEGO Ghostbusters Ecto 1 on my shelf (above the crystal, of course). I want something sensational! Or at least mildly amusing! And different! And yet the same! Wow, really, you have to feel for Feig. But here’s what he’s got going for him: Feig has a chance at helming something decent.
New Ghostbusters has a chance at being great. Two chances, really.
Feig can either exert extreme discipline, or he’s going to need a lot of luck. To the point of discipline, Spy is a terrific, mass-appeal comedy that hits genre highs while efficiently getting the best out of his stars, and it bodes well for Feig. But perhaps he could benefit from a little luck because, well, Ivan Reitman kind of sucked before and after Ghostbusters, and there’s always hope that Feig might fluke his way into greatness. Let’s look at how both angles could work for him.
For one thing, Spy spoke incredibly well to Feig’s potential as a director capable of handling a number of things on screen. Spy is a deft and daffy surprise. While the marketing made it out to be a cheap, pratfall comedy where a crass McCarthy takes dives across Europe while barking at baddies, it had more going for it than that. It showed depth, maturity, and a level of panache and flair both Feig and McCarthy had yet to show. Spy shows Feig getting better at his craft. It shows a Feig with actual filmmaking in him, in spite of his reliance on improv.
As an action comedy, it feels like a film that could translate incredibly well into the Ghostbusters mold. A little goofy, rooted in familiar tropes, and infinitely appealing, Spy is the best of the model that Ghostbusters more or less set up: the mass-appeal genre hybrid. As I mentioned in a review last week, Spy successfully functions as a movie where you laugh giddily over McCarthy’s foul mouth, while becoming breathless over nicely executed action scenes.
In Ghostbusters, you shriek in nervous terror over the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man while laughing over the absurd nature of it all. Both films manage to capture a mixture of feelings and moods, but while Ghostbusters had become a model, Spy excels in re-creating that model. Murray was a schmuck who could rise to the occasion. McCarthy is a schlub who rises to the occasion. Feig’s getting good at what he does, and by next summer, we could see a man in his prime making his finest work despite the fact that he has brand name obligations. Right now, speaking as a Ghostbusters lover, seeing the accomplishments of Spy, Feig has a very slim chance of excelling at his Ghostbusters.
But if I’m wrong? I’ll go peacefully, quietly! Kidding. If Feig is strictly taking a hearty check and uses Ghostbusters to hop onto other projects? Luck. Pure luck could save him. The same way luck saved and elevated Ivan Reitman.
Reitman didn’t look like the director of a masterpiece in 1984. He doesn’t in 2015. To be fair, no one was hounding the production and subsequent release of the classic movie: it just got to come out of nowhere, exist on its own terms, and bud into an artistic and commercial sensation. Feig is making a property in a property-obsessed age. Everyone likes to identify themselves as an “insert property here” kind of person, because cultural markers are what seemingly define folks. But if you look at the genesis and culmination of that original project, it’s nothing short of miraculous, and that’s why you have to believe Feig has a chance in hell at making a decent Ghostbuster film.
Ivan Reitman is kind of a crummy director. Still is. But even he wasn’t able to stop the kismet that produced Ghostbusters.
Stripes could be argued as Reitman’s Spy: a first pass attempt at throwing genres together that hints at a director blossoming into unexpectedly good shape. If we’re lucky, Feig will get lucky. His VFX team, director of photography, composer, co-writer Katie Dippold, marketing team at Sony, and four leads will all be on the top of their games. We’ll all be quoting Kristen Wiig and playing with her Ghostbusters action figure by next Christmas. If we’re lucky.
To Feig’s potential, Spy is fun and slick. You should see it before you ever see Entourage. It’s a big-time film that shows how Feig might be able to handle the responsibilities and joys of making a new Ghostbusters. It all seems less risky than drinking Dan Aykroyd’s vodka, amirite?
Plus, you’ve got to give it up for Feig being thrown into a corporate grinder and holding to his obvious but committed vision. He knows he’s good with female comics, really good. Feig showed promise as a studio crowd-pleaser with Spy. And for the love of god, give the man a chance to show his movie, and keep in mind, he’s already feeling enough pressure from fans, from the studio, and likely from himself. Just this morning, The Independent shared quotes from a radio interview where Feig admitted his frustration over Sony announcing another Ghostbusters starring Channing Tatum and with the Russo Brothers of Captain America: The Winter Soldier directing. Feig said he has to meet with other filmmakers to avoid any overlap, because everything has to be a stinking “universe” at the megaplex. Personally, I liked it when it was called serialization, where teasing more stories (read: drumming up business) was a more transparent thing. But that’s the times.
Still not convinced? Consider this: To Feig’s credit as a director who knows what he can do and be challenged to do, he turned down the doomed Ghostbusters III. Many times, according to recent interviews. Sony likely looked at him like, “Hey you! Funny guy with a string of commercial hits! Make this billion-dollar franchise stay alive!”
And Feig was like, “Well, I don’t want to make that film, as much I enjoy the Ghostbusters property … but you know? I have an idea for how I can make this work.” If Melissa McCarthy can break down Jason Statham, she’ll do just fine against Slimer in 2016.