Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016)
I wish I could report that the new Ghostbusters – a reimagining of the beloved 1984 original, this time with an all-female lead cast – was as much of a comic masterpiece as its predecessor, thereby thumbing its cinematic nose at the haters who cried foul at the announcement of its gynocentric production. Why, in the second decade of the 21st century, anyone would object to a new version of the story with women in the main parts, I do not know. May such losers encounter the eternal bad karma that they deserve. Sadly, however, my reasons for not appreciating the film are far more pedestrian: its script is a complete mess, and not that funny. Co-written by Katie Dippold (The Heat) and director Paul Feig (Spy), the screenplay lurches from one under-realized and over-produced situation to another, forgetting such essentials as meaningful character development and the joyful interplay of joke setup vs. payoff. Sure, there are a few genuine laughs, but given who is on screen, that was inevitable. For the most part, it’s just a special-effects-driven bore.
Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) and Melissa McCarthy (St. Vincent) play childhood friends Erin and Abby – scientists (or so we’re told) – who once co-authored a book on ghosts before growing apart. Now Erin is on the tenure track at Columbia while Abby labors in an unauthorized lab with Jillian – Kate McKinnon (The Angry Birds Movie), one of the two best things in the movie – perfecting their specialized phantom detectors. When a local haunting (in an unlikely mansion in the middle of Manhattan) brings Erin and Abby reluctantly back together, all three quickly discover that the spirit world is indeed real and, in fact, quite active. Soon they are joined by Patty – Leslie Jones (Top Five), the other reason to see the film – an employee of the MTA who contacts the nascent “ghostbusters” when the subway station she supervises receives an unwelcome spectral visitor (ask yourself why, as in the original, the lone African-American is a working-class stiff, rather than a scientist, like the others). For reasons poorly explained in the script, Patty decides to join the other three, and soon they are all running around New York City, brandishing nuclear-powered weapons they barely understand, capturing ghosts.
All of which is fine, I guess, except that every scene feels as if it were directed by a first-timer and sketched by a writer determined to make as much room for improv as possible. But, for my money, the best improvisational riffs usually emerge out of a decent initial structure, and what passes for plot devices here feel so far-fetched that the jokes mostly fall flat. Chris Hemsworth (Rush), as a dim-witted (but very hunky) secretary is a prime example: he’s kind of amusing, but without the support of a well-crafted gag, what comic timing he can muster feels mostly forced. The cameos from the stars of the original movie are also hit or miss. The best ones come later in the film, so stick around if you’re tempted to leave. Unfortunately, on top of all of the other misfires, the main villain of the movie is a caricature of a grown-up bullying victim, pasty and overweight, exacting his revenge on the world for its past sins against him. Really? They couldn’t do better than make fun of the socially awkward?
It’s too bad, as there was a lot of potential, with this cast and the original premise. Inept ghost hunters who somehow stumble into saving the world worked the first time around, and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t here. Personally, I would have preferred to see the story set in the same universe as the 1984 movie, rather than in a world where those events never happened, but certainly the choice to start fresh is not the reason this movie fails. Perhaps, as with many a contemporary comedy (witness the recent Sisters, or quite a few Will Ferrell films), no one bothered with the story, imagining that the assembly of the cast was enough. Certainly, if you are a diehard fan of any of these actresses, you may enjoy the film for her/their own sake. And more power to you. I, however, was hoping for more than the occasional chuckle.