Neither a dud worthy of the torrent of criticism sparked by the trailer, nor a classic on par with the original, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot provides enough fun to vindicate its own production.
Following in the vein of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original, Ghostbusters follows four scientists (well, three scientists and a problematically uneducated subway worker, but more on that later) who decide to utilise their knowledge in the paranormal by starting a ghost removal service. The plot is not an exact beat-for-beat replica of the original – a key difference being the absence of any romantic plotline to match Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver’s – but the basic outline is familiar.
Tonally, the film is actually substantially different, offering more in the way of punchlines, and less in the way of character comedy, a shift reflecting the changing audiences but also the irreplaceability of Bill Murray’s effortless charisma. Ghostbusters goes some way towards establishing itself as a distinct and self-sufficient property, but never lets you forget the towering spectre of the original. So frequent are the nods to Reitman’s classic you could mistake it for a tic, and there are cameo appearances abound, with surprisingly little cringe factor.
“Neither a dud worthy of the torrent of criticism sparked by the trailer, nor a classic on par with the original”
Such is the level of media hype surrounding the film’s release that there are few original sentiments to express. Saturday Night Live alumnus Kate McKinnon, playing eccentric nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzman, has been popularly described as the film’s standout lead performer, and, indeed, she is terrific. Imbuing her character with charm, humour, and genuine idiosyncrasy, it is easy to see why so many are placing her in the ‘Murray role’, should such a strained comparison be needed. McKinnon also delivers the most effective moment of flash-in-the-pan pathos, a short, human beat easily surpassing the film’s weak attempts at larger emotional payoff.
The other leads are markedly less outstanding; Kristen Wiig fares well as the ostensible chief protagonist Erin Gilbert, a semi-disgraced academic looking to rebuild her career with long-lost college friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). McCarthy struggles with a particularly thin character, a nerdy type defined almost exclusively by a flat running joke about Chinese takeaway. Chris Hemsworth has never been more enjoyable than as the ghostbusters’ hyperbolically air-headed receptionist. The jokes are obvious and well-worn, but conducted with a comic tightness that leaves Hemsworth with the most, and biggest, laughs in the whole film.
Another point picked up by many critics is the problematic nature of the fourth ghostbuster: Patty Tolan, the only black character of relevance in the film (save for a criminally wasted Michael Kenneth Williams and an Ernie Hudson cameo). Played by Leslie Jones, Patty is a frustrating cliché, and a completely unnecessary one at that. For a film that is fundamentally a commendable, progressive achievement (a big blockbuster release helmed by four women), Ghostbusters has a very real and unavoidable problem with race. For the singular black lead to be the only ghostbuster without a science degree, and furthermore to be streetwise, ‘sassy’, and other reductionist adjectives historically grafted onto black women in film, represents a fairly crucial misjudgement in the film’s very fibre.
Nevertheless, for the majority of its runtime, Ghostbusters is a functional and enjoyable romp. Bad jokes (of which there are a lot) are quickly forgotten. Whenever your interest threatens to wane, the film hits you with an unexpected cameo, or an easy musical montage, or some genuine comic relief from Hemsworth or McKinnon. The music, incidentally, is one of the film’s real weak spots, opting for an overblown variations-on-a-theme approach that completely misunderstands the reason Ray Parker Jr.’s original theme song was such a hit.
Ultimately, it will be the box office takings which decide whether Ghostbusters will be a game-changer for women in Hollywood, or a noble diversion. It would be a lot easier to get behind the film’s progressiveness were it not for the depressing lack of sensitivity in racial representation. Which is not to take away from the substantial praise it warrants. Not as a glowing cinematic achievement, but as a long overdue step in the right direction. And for the many thousands of young girls who will go see it, Ghostbusters will no doubt seem much, much more than that.
Image: Columbia Pictures 2016