In a summer of social unrest, political turmoil, and a general cinematic hideousness making the rounds with countless volumes of overwrought destruction … who you gonna call?
When every Disney IP is emotionally calculated and pixelated to the nth degree, when studios are striking out with grim, dark sequelitis? Who you gonna call?
When cats and dogs and restless filmgoers are living together, and a river of slime has risen against franchises like forty years of darkness! Earthquakes! Volcanoes! The dead rising from the grave! Who you gonna call?
The Ghost Busters.
It’s been over 30 years since Ivan Reitman’s masterpiece (yes) of improvisation, action, and comedy hit theaters. The film was a miracle entertainment, a tentpole adventure with yuks to spare and an unconventional sensibility, a summer film that still endures as one of the very best “fake electronic light shows.” And somehow, it’s still Columbia Pictures’ big ticket. A debatable sequel, a beloved cartoon, and a generation of tightly t-shirted young men later, the franchise has been brought back from the beyond as a reboot from Columbia/Sony, Paul Feig, and an all-star leading cast. And great news: bustin’ feels pretty good again.
Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is sturdy summer entertainment, at once a freaky comedy and an unexpectedly effective action film. For those only wanting to know Spengler, Stantz, Venkman, and Zeddemore: that’s alright, too. There are many other fantastic reviews and film recommendations on this site. Just know that you’re missing out on a good time. In Feig’s reboot, the story is the same, and yet, not quite: four nerdy New Yorkers assemble for what may be the 21st century’s greatest untapped economic venture, professional paranormal investigations and eliminations.
A haunting at a boutique tourist mansion provokes the attention of a Columbia University physicist angling for tenure, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig); prim, proper, and dressed to the collar like a ‘70s stewardess, Wiig is affably awkward. Gilbert co-wrote a book years ago on ghosts that attracts the attention of management at the haunted mansion, and she’s asked for help. Gilbert is somewhat mortified. It’s one of those new-age guides on ghosts that would find its way into goth and occult specialty stores these days, complete with double colons: “Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively: The Study of the Paranormal.” Gilbert wishes the book could be burned, but is forced to re-connect with her old co-author, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), to plead that the book be taken off Amazon.
Abby doesn’t care, because Abby’s all caught up in the crackpot business of chasing ghosts with tape recorders and exposed wire helmets. She’s an aggressive believer, capable of sniffing ion content in the air. Abby works at a rinky-dink city college with the strange and irresistible Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon, in a true star-making performance), an engineer with overalls, goggles, and an endless supply of non-sequiturs; just wait for her to party down to DeBarge. Together, Holtzmann, Yates, and Gilbert are three supremely talented and highly idiosyncratic outcasts.
The three come together to investigate a haunting, and soon begin to build a quasi-business. Wiig and McCarthy click in the same anxious and affectionate way they did in Bridesmaids, completing each other’s theories in the most spastic ways. Thrown off campuses, shacking up in the second floor of a Chinese restaurant, and working with garage tech, the trio gets off to a shabby start. It’s all decidedly punk and chummy. They’re done kissing “so many different kinds of asses,” or being told in comments sections for their videos together that “ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts.” In fact, it’s time to do exactly that.
Elsewhere in town, an MTA employee named Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) spots a creeper by the name of Rowan (SNL and Inside Amy Schumer writer Neil Casey) fiddling with electrical devices at a Seward train stop. He’s planting charges to summon spirits across town. To what end? Resentful retribution. Rowan loathes “normal people”; he’s a brat who’s grown to hate everything, his self-righteousness festering to the point of anger, muttering about visions of a perfect ghost society. It’s the world against his “genius.” (He’s a totally modern villain, in that his grand scheme blossoms from the pettiest resentments.) Soon Patty joins the “Conductors of the Metaphysical Examination,” who become the Ghost Busters, and the four must ultimately stop a cataclysmic event that Rowan wants to bring upon New York City. Despite the seeming familiarity, Ghostbusters is too enjoyable to dismiss in full as outright fan service or as a cash grab.
On the humor side, Feig directs with the broad comic ease for which he’s come to be known, more tightly than usual this time around. A Feig gag that might have run three minutes in The Heat goes for just a minute here. And Feig’s humor plays within a traditional structure, ad-libbing and turning jokes from strange places within a neatly dressed outline. For one thing, slime is the silliest here that it’s been since Nickelodeon in the ‘90s (“it’s like it’s targeting me”). Gadgets are comically stitched together (an ‘ecto grenade’?). And as in Bridemaids and Spy, every actor gets at least one moment to shine. Familiar faces from HBO shows find time for one-liners. Chris Hemsworth, as the Ghostbusters’ secretary Kevin, shows a knack for self-aware dummy comedy and earns an A just for pulling off glasses without lenses (“They kept getting dirty”).
But it’s McKinnon who grabs, or rather steals, the camera with every last mannerism, tic, and offbeat move, and Feig loves her for it. “I’ve heard terrible things about you,” Holtzmann tactlessly tells Gilbert. When someone asks what year it is, Holtzmann blurts out, “2040! The President is a plant!” Her glasses, her hair, the way she dances with burners – she’s the freak flag that Ghostbusters needs. It’s a comic performance with some real energy and soul.
In sheer mathematical terms, Ghostbusters lands roughly 80% of its jokes, and the humor and camaraderie play well together. That’s perhaps why the action elements are so exciting. Ghostbusters largely roots its action in real sets, with real actors, digitally enhanced or effectively layered atop something physical and tangible. Without giving too much away, look forward to the team’s first big job at a concert hall. Their job is to trap a green demon. Where handheld work and over-sliced edits might be expected, Feig keeps the visuals chaotic but clean by building the ghost chase atop the film’s human elements. And many of Ghostbusters’ action sequences work like this. The film’s bigger setpieces are handled with crisp, lively photography, neon visual enhancements, a bold and dramatic score from Theodore Shapiro, and actual actors playing (get this) people inside these moments. And there’s just something undeniably Magnificent Seven about watching the four leads face off, with proton packs, against evil from faraway places. For a modern studio comedy, this Ghostbusters feels refreshingly old-fashioned; the movie is undeniably silly, but the action feels more authentic than one might expect. How vintage. How 1984. How fun! Humor and even a little heart can grow more easily in a film that isn’t potted with rubble.
The complication with Ghostbusters as a reboot is the conspicuous fan service throughout: the origin story of the Ghostbuster logo, the cameos from the original cast, the little nods and allusions. “You! You are special for knowing these icons and actors!” the film unsubtly suggests at times. In fact, Ghostbusters’ weakest element is a shoehorned relic from the original, one that could have been left in an editing bay (hint: your favorite original actor’s involvement). For the initiated, this ornamentation may be annoying, condescending, or even still amusing. It all depends on one’s tolerance for nostalgia, but this is a Ghostbusters in keeping with the spirit of those before it.
Besides, Ghostbusters as a franchise is over 30 years old now. A new generation of enthusiastic science kids, dweebs, and young girls and boys alike will get to experience the joy of ghost busting for their first time. And entertainment like that is the best kind of entertainment there is.