Mixed Signals: Answering the Call of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristin Wiig, and Leslie Jons as the Ghostbusters

The Ghostbusters! Sony Pictures

Steve Jobs had a quote from Picasso he liked to throw around when he was feeling thoughtful: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” He usually employed it to explain Apple’s strategy of “borrowing” technological innovations from competitors. He was somewhat less equitable when it came to the subject of people borrowing from him, however, as evinced by another quote—one from Jobs himself to his biographer that detailed his feelings about appropriation in the other direction: “I’m going to destroy [competitor] Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” What’s yours is mine; what’s mine is mine, too.

Jobs was clearly a shrewd businessman and innovator and is deserving of the elegiac praise he’s received in the wake of his death. But the irony is that, after having ascended the mountain of success and privilege, he thought he had a monopoly on innovation and the creative repurposing of earlier efforts.

In a totally thematically unconnected part of the world, Ghostbusters, the Paul Feig–directed reboot of the original 1984 film, is now out in theaters. The premise is familiar: four average joes, with varying levels of qualification in paranormal studies, unite to rid New York City of meddlesome ghosts. The twist this time is that our joes are Janes. Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones play characters that are new to the franchise, and the film is inspired by, but doesn’t directly acknowledge, the earlier movies. Cue the online thermonuclear war.

Much ink (digital ink? many pixels?) has already been spilled across the Internet over the new Ghostbusters film, starting from the time it was announced in 2014 and continuing up to its release last weekend (and, I’m sure, to the inevitable re-reboot in a few years). There are those who hold it up as the first in a new generation of female-led genre films, those who have decried it as derivative, and those who . . . well, see the “thermonuclear war” comment above. It’s not this author’s intent to add his ink (pixels, damnit, whatever) to that tide; you’re here for a review of the film, after all. But a review would be incomplete if it didn’t at least try to address how the mercurial online landscape of the 21st century led to such a hard-to-pin-down film.

Ghostbusters—or “Ghostbusters (2016),” as it looks like it’ll be called for at least the near future—stars Wiig and McCarthy as Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, respectively. The two are academics, paranormal researchers, and former friends who fell out over Erin’s desire to “go straight” and secure tenure at Columbia University in the field of quantum physics. Meanwhile, across town at a tech college, Abby and her research partner and tech monkey, Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), are committed to the discovery and study of the paranormal, but so far they’ve only caught disbelief, ridicule, and watery wonton soup. When Ed Mulgrave Jr. (Ed Begley Jr. in one of a million zillion cameos by actors both dramatic and comedic), curator of the historic Aldridge House, approaches Gilbert about a possible haunting, the estranged scientists are unwillingly reunited. Their path will see them joined by MTA worker and amateur NYC historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and by mimbo and World’s Worst Receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as they fight to stop creepy weirdo Rowan North (Feig regular Neil Casey) from unleashing spectral Armageddon on the world.

If that sounds naggingly familiar, it should. The film is essentially a “soft reboot” of the original Ghostbusters, using elements from both of the previous movies to create something that is designed to deliver the same good feelings associated with bustin’ while simultaneously taking the franchise in a new direction. What that direction was intended to be, however, remains frustratingly unclear. It liberally references the franchise’s history and iconography—every surviving main cast member from the original films makes a cameo (no William Atherton?), and at one point, the Ghostbusters literally fight a personification of their own logo. For a film that has struggled so mightily against detractors (and itself) with respect to its identity, you’d think that symbolism like that would be deployed to a purpose. On the contrary, however, it and much of the franchise’s cultural capital seem to be merely pop fodder for Patty’s ghost chipper.

But that’s just sentimental mawkishness for a 30-year-old film that was barely taken seriously by its creators, and getting irate over something like that (as the Internet has shown us recently) is where madness lies. Full disclosure: the original 1984 Ghostbusters may well be my very favorite film, to the point where I’ve requested that when I leave this world, in lieu of a memorial service, I just want Ghostbusters projected above the altar and everyone in the church gets popcorn and Junior Mints and yes it’s been explained to me that that’s in bad taste for more than a few reasons but I don’t care.

The Ecto-1 vehicle

The new Ecto-1. Sony Pictures

I don’t know what it is about me, about bustin’ ghosts, about Bill Murray and pre-Giuliani NYC and Twinkies and marshmallow men, but the original movie is a perfect film. You don’t remake Ghostbusters. Well, I guess you make Ghostbusters 2. And the Real Ghostbusters cartoon. And the Extreme Ghostbusters cartoon. And the video game. And the Ghostbusters Spooktacular. And Ecto Cooler. Okay, point taken that this is a commodity like any kid-friendly action or comedy film and that “integrity” is going to take a backseat to commercial concerns. But a stick-holdin’, Bobby Brown–lovin’ fan like me has to question the filmmakers’ desire to “start over” with this franchise by including cameos and familiar nods to the earlier films without building on their continuity. They couldn’t have Force Awakensed this?

These questions all fall naturally to writer-director Paul Feig, who’s been behind a hot streak of female-driven films that have earned an average of over $100 million per film for just five stints in the director’s chair. (Just forget about Unaccompanied Minors; the rest of the world has.) Much of this success can be attributed to not-so-secret Feig weapon McCarthy, who—along with, in a lesser sense, Wiig—brings a kitchen-sink brand of screwball improv that has shaped what we expect from women in comedy films and inspired a sea change in who Hollywood tries to market films to. That key word, improv, however, may explain the film’s disconnectedness from its source material. Feig’s scripts have never been heavy on plot or structure and often rely, as many modern comedies do, on long takes of funny people bouncing things off of each other. His approach here seems to stop at “funny women—and this time it’s Ghostbusters!” It’s tempting to call that approach cynical, but consider the aforementioned Ecto Cooler reference, and it’s not like The Heat was a letter-perfect police procedural. It still seems like a missed opportunity, though, and a missed chance to build on the goodwill and expectations of former fans beyond a few lazy wink-nudge cameos by Murray, Weaver, Aykroyd, and the like.

And Feig’s approach, which has succeeded for him repeatedly in the past, stumbles noticeably here. The plot is one you’ve seen before, and not just in 1984: our heroes develop their skills, learn to trust each other, and save the world before the credits roll. But as the film moves through Point A to B to C, the script often feels like a guideline more than a rule, and the humor—something this series in particular should be leaning heavily on—suffers from the worst tendencies of the Feig/Apatow school of “Funny People Talking Is Funny.” Your mileage may vary, however; the audience at the Thursday-night showing I took in (though only 40 strong) laughed raucously at some parts and generally seemed to like what they were seeing. But for me, it lacked the dry bite of the original’s humor and substituted little more than broad slapstick and snark in its place.

The worst victims of the weak script were the principal actors, all of whom deserved a much better film. As I’ve mentioned, people like McCarthy and Wiig are the reason we know Feig’s name, and if you were going to recast the Ghostbusters for a generation more familiar with Target Lady than the Bass-O-Matic ’76, this is the crew you go with. The two actors have an easy chemistry that shifts from bickering and deep-seated resentment to kinship and renewed trust in a satisfying way. As far as satisfying goes, however, Leslie Jones runs away with the movie. I’ve never been her biggest fan, as the only work I’ve really seen from her is on SNL (another vastly underwritten venue), where she’s asked to traffic mostly in being loud and obnoxious for their own sake. But as Patty, the subway worker turned ghost-chipping hero, she’s the heart of the team, showing depth and resourcefulness. She gets some of the movie’s best lines, all while providing grounded commentary on the ridiculous antics the ’busters are involved in.

The word grounded gets taken out and shot, though, whenever Kate McKinnon is on the screen. Look, she’s your new favorite character and/or Internet crush. I’m never going to talk you out of liking her, nor am I here to do so. But the film gives her little to do beyond create new gadgets off-screen, and the actor (no doubt at the encouraging of the director) fills the rest of her screen time with fruitless mugging and clunky one-liners. Holtzmann flirts (pun somewhat intended) with possible hidden depth, which comes into focus when you learn that she was originally intended to be gay, but Sony said no. Being gay wouldn’t automatically make her three-dimensional, but it serves as corroborating evidence that satisfying the studio and establishing a cash-cow franchise for the ailing Sony Pictures was paramount (pun not intended) in the minds of the filmmakers.

Kevin pointing while sitting at a desk

Chris Hemsworth as Kevin. Sony Pictures

Another of the film’s outliers is Chris Hemsworth as the Ghostbusters’ numbskull receptionist. Some of his stuff works, but it’s hard not to imagine he’s doing time in movie jail after tanking a Michael Mann movie and a Ron Howard movie in quick succession. His presence in the film is puzzling until it’s revealed that (spoiler alert) he becomes the villain at the film’s halfway mark. The underwritten aspect of his appearance still rankles, however, and it’s possible that some of his good stuff ended up on the cutting-room floor. One conspicuous casualty is a two-minute-long dance sequence in which Evil Kevin directs an assembly of cops and National Guard soldiers through a Thriller-meets-Bee-Gees number on the streets of ghost-infected New York. The sequence does play under the (heavily accented) credits, but one has to wonder how well the movie was really structured if a “seven-figure” dance sequence was dropped over pacing concerns.

“Okay, you’ve had your fun, Internet guy,” you say. “Was there anything worthwhile in Ghostbusters (2016)?” Yes, reader, absolutely.

Despite the particular gripes I’ve raised, most of them melt away when the lights go down and the projector rolls. This film is a blast to watch. The idea of “updating” the Ghostbusters for a 21st-century sensibility is a solid one, and the roles are perfectly cast (yes, even McKinnon). This new Ghostbusters, emerging in an era of superhero slam fests, was always going to focus on action over comedy, and there are some genuinely exciting scenes in which ghosts are roundly busted. The ghost effects, which were an early target of online criticism, look great and are a solid update to the franchise’s aesthetic. I still prefer the puppet and miniature techniques of the previous films, but the Day-Glo ghosts of the new entry present an engaging spectacle. There’s a creative sequence late in the film’s climax when the ghosts of old have been loosed from their chains and are attacking New York, and the city itself becomes transformed by the returned spirits of Puritans, street gangs, cabbies, and other previous denizens of the Big Apple. Neon replaces digital displays, old movies appear on classic marquees, and the city begins to slip into the past as the dead invade. (Although if this were really in Times Square pre-Giuliani, let’s face it: wall-to-wall porno theaters.) Ghostbusters (2016) is full of neat touches like that. It’s too bad that the filmmakers couldn’t have spent more time embellishing those touches instead of cramming in an Ozzy cameo or hawking Papa John’s pizza.

Erin (Kristin Wiig) encounters a female ghost

Solid ghost effects. Sony Pictures

So, yes, it’s an enjoyable film. It’s got an ebullient energy that won over a #NotMyGhostbusters guy like me, even when I was rolling my eyes a bit at the gags that didn’t work and imagining a punchier sequel. Haters of this film—or the idea of it, I should say, because they probably haven’t watched it—have started a firestorm online and elsewhere about the evil it represents, but it’s false fire. The film isn’t as good as the 1984 one, but what is? It’s not going to destroy your childhood. How could it? Ghostbusters 2 beat them to it. It’s not unoriginal and derivative, unless you think the 1984 Ghostbusters should have had Larry Storch and a gorilla in it. It’s not here to blow your dick off and take your privilege, you sniveling man-babies. You’ve done everything in your power to make sure it wouldn’t succeed, and yet here it is. This busting is intended to make you feel good. So what if the film could have been better? Ghostbusters, whether good or bad, doesn’t need to be a referendum on female-driven comedies so long as we keep making them.

Speaking of repurposing, the last line of the previous paragraph comes directly from critic David Ehrlich’s Letterboxd review. Great writers steal, after all. The dirty secret of the Jobs-quoting-Picasso quote I mentioned earlier is this: no one can find any proof that Picasso ever said that. T. S. Eliot said it about poets, and Faulkner and Stravinsky are also possible users of the phrase, but the implication is clear; we steal the things we love and we make new things from them. We always have. In reworking one of its own classic films, Sony Columbia can’t exactly steal from itself, but it won’t steal from you either.

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