Thursday, July 14, 2016

Zaki's Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

I think it's fair to say that director Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters from 1984 enjoys a level of adoration that's probably disproportionate to the film itself. Now, that's not say it isn't a great film. If you read my retro review, you can see all the ways it just works. However, if it weren't for the massive merchandising apparatus that sprang up in its wake, with an entire generation coming of age watching the animated cartoon show while playing with the action figures in between chugs of Ecto Cooler, Ghostbusters '84 would be a well-regarded '80s comedy like Stripes or Caddyshack, and that's it. Which would be fine, by the way.

But of course, that's not the case. Instead, Ghostbusters has enjoyed an extended pop culture half-life that's made it an IP that's just as valuable to the corporation that owns it (Sony) as it is to the folks who grew up with it, which in turn has led up to this moment. And while another Ghostbusters film has been in perpetual development practically since the second one hit theaters in summer of '89, it was only after Bridesmaids and The Heat director Paul Feig replaced Reitman and announced that he was going to (gasp) ignore the previous films, and (choke) populate his main cast with women that comments sections across the Internet nearly collapsed under the weight of bilious manboys forced to deal with a changing world.

Whether decrying the unmitigated hubris (!) of putting females (!!) in those unisex overalls, or having to let go of a fictional reality they were fond of before puberty, the new Ghostbusters had suddenly become a cultural flashpoint -- a crucible where the fate of mankind was being decided. Bottom line though, all the wailing and rending of garments across the web has obscured the fact that at its heart, the Ghostbusters franchise is one very good movie, one okay movie, and a bunch of tie-ins. And in that context, Feig's reinvention is totally fine. It's an enjoyable refresh of the brand that I fully expect will play for contemporary crowds the same way the first one did in the '80s.

The story, by Feig and Katie Dippold, borrows its broad strokes from the original's script by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis while switching things up in the margins. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) are childhood friends and aficionados of the paranormal who've since drifted apart as Gilbert attempts to find a "serious" role in academia. When a New York tourist attraction is beset by a supernatural phenomenon, the pair reunite to investigate, along with Yates' colleague Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Investigating the phenomenon, they soon realize that there's more where that came from, and with Erin losing her cushy teaching gig once word of her ghost-hunting goes viral, they decide to start a business hunting ghosts.

Moving into an empty space above a Chinese restaurant, the trio hires a dim bulb beefcake receptionist (Chris Hemsworth) and is also eventually joined by MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) as the fourth part of the team. But even as they go to work ridding the city of spooks, they're largely written off as a fraud by the media (who saddle them with the pejorative "Ghostbusters" tag) and the city establishment (including Mayor Andy Garcia and his assistant Cecily Strong). However, when a new supernatural force is looming and threatens to destroy all of New York, well, who you gonna call? (Cue the Ray Parker Jr. theme song.)

At its core, just like the first one, Ghostbusters '16 benefits simply by putting a supremely talented comedic director and cast together and letting them do their thing. This is the kind of film that lives or dies by its ensemble, and Feig picked the perfect people to occupy these roles. We believe in their friendship, and we enjoy seeing them together. There's a spirit (pun unintentional) of camaraderie that makes it easy to go along with them on their adventure, and while the third act gets a bit lost in the same CGI wonderland that afflicts many a blockbuster these days, with a villain who's not particularly compelling, I laughed a lot during the early goings, which in turn made the later stuff go down easier.

What was smart was not to make the new characters one-to-one analogs of the first-gen GBs. There's no one comparable to Bill Murray's Peter Venkman, for example, and while McKinnon's off-kilter Holtzmann clearly occupies the "Egon" role played by the late, great Harold Ramis, she's a different creature entirely. Speaking of that, this new take is populated with numerous cameos and callbacks to the franchise's history, and while the thought is appreciated, those moments are easily the weakest. It's understandable the filmmakers want to pay fealty, but it feels like they're hitting the pause button every few minutes while looking to the audience for approval. Don't get me wrong, it's always nice to see them, but not at the expense of what the remake is trying to accomplish.

In particular Bill Murray wanders through a few scenes looking like there's literally nowhere else on this planet he wouldn't rather be. If this is him in a glorified walk-on, one can understand his famous reticence at doing a full-on sequel all these years. To that point, the truth is there isn't a lot of reason this Ghostbusters needed to be a full-on restart. Feig said he wanted the thrill of discovery as our characters invent their various doodads, but he could have accomplished that goal within the extant framework with a few minor tweaks. Would that have been enough to hush the Internet commentariat? Probably not, but it does seem a shame to not take advantage of that accumulated history.

That's a small gripe, mind you. Ultimately, with a project like this you have to sort of look past the bright and shiny facade to the franchise machinery whirring and humming underneath. First and foremost, this is an exercise in brand management for Sony, hoping to jolt a somnambulant property back to life. And on that score Paul Feig's Ghostbusters pretty much hits all the marks it needs to hit. One can choose to be cynical about it, but I'd rather not be. The original is a special movie for a lot of people, and while this new one probably won't play for them the same way that one did, it also doesn't need to. They've got their Ghostbusters. I don't see anything wrong with letting a new generation have theirs. B

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