Ghostbusters is a Disappointment and a Waste of Talent
I wanted to like Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters. I’ve been a fan of Ghostbusters for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I saw the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters before I saw the first movie, but I eventually wore out my VHS tapes of the original movie and Ghostbusters 2. I even liked Extreme Ghostbusters from the late 90s. I’ve been rooting for a third Ghostbusters movie for years. After all of the awful sequels and other film franchises that grinded along even though no one wanted them, I couldn’t understand why Ghostbusters was stalled (yes, I know it was Bill Murray).
I was disappointed about the prospect of a new Ghostbusters movie that would be a reboot and not a sequel. But when I learned who was directing and who was cast as the new Ghostbusters, I was excited again. On paper, the movie has everything going for it—great casting, a proven comedy director in Paul Feig, Ivan Reitman’s support and blessing, and participation from most of the living original cast.
It’s hard to pinpoint where it all went wrong. The movie’s not bad. But it’s barely average. It’s unfortunate that reboots are always compared to the originals, particularly when the original is as iconic as Ghostbusters. However, even if I try to evaluate this movie on its own merits it’s just OK.
The plot is serviceable. Erin Gilbert, played by Kristin Wiig, is a professor at a prestigious school, about to earn tenure, when it’s revealed she wrote a book about supernatural events with Abby Yates, played by Melissa McCarthy, which threatens to ruin her career. They meet to discuss discontinuing the book’s sales when they get word about a supernatural event at a local museum and, for some reason, go to investigate together along with Abby’s new partner, Jillian Holtzmann, played by Kate MacKinnon. The trailers all showed you pretty much how this scene goes and “ghosts are real” and the team is off and running. Patty Tolan, played by Leslie Jones, is an MTA worker who spots a ghost and some other funny business in the subway and hooks up with the team and they all become Ghostbusters to catch a ghost and prove their scientific theories.
The villain, Rowan, played by Neil Casey who was excellent in Feig’s Yahoo Screen series Other Space, is basically a plot generator here. He’s building ghost summoning machines because he’s mad that society is diseased… or something like that. Honestly, his motivation was about as clichéd and lazy as I’ve seen in a while. And, of course, he gets mad that the Ghostbusters are catching the ghosts he’s trying to summon. But he never rises to the level of antagonism that William Atherton’s Walter Peck did with the original Ghostbusters. Peck is a power-mad government bureaucrat who is also trying to stick it to Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman because he was blown off. Rowan is the villain because, well, he’s the villain.
It all culminates in a huge, thrown-together CGI throw down. But, like so many movies these days, the visual effects overwhelm the film. There isn’t a weight to anything the characters are doing because it’s obviously a green screen behind them. There comes a point in some movies with a lot of visual effects where everything becomes a cartoon and it separates the audience from the characters. That happens here.
Chris Hemsworth leads the supporting cast in the over-the-top “dumb guy” role of Kevin the Ghostbusters’ assistant that belongs more in a Dumb and Dumber movie than Ghostbusters. Again, on paper, I think Kevin probably seemed like a funny idea. And give credit to Hemsworth: he’s the only reason it works even a little bit. It reminded me a little bit of his turn in the remake of Red Dawn a few years back—he was the only actor in that movie who seemed to give a damn. It was like no one told him the rest of the cast was just there to cash a check. That’s not exactly the case here, but he still stands out.
Andy Garcia plays the New York City Mayor and, honestly, I don’t know why they wasted the money on him for this role. He doesn’t really do anything and isn’t close to being as memorable as David Margullies’ turn in the original films. He doesn’t really even seem like he’s a New Yorker. It’s not Garcia’s fault, but the role doesn’t require anything special.
Cecily Strong plays the Mayor’s Chief of Staff (Aide?) and makes the most of a small role. She’s one of the few people in the movie who acquitted herself well. But like everyone else she’s forced to chew on the flat jokes and dialogue in the script, so she can do only so much.
The script is a huge problem here. I think Paul Feig and fellow writer, Katie Dippold, built the bones of a Ghostbusters movie and simply planned to have the cast sell it. It feels like the script needed another draft or two. Again, the plot’s not bad, it’s just nothing great. But it matters because it takes about thirty minutes to get the story going and there’s really nothing funny happening during this time to keep your attention. Frankly, it feels like Ghostbusters fan-fiction.
I’m on record for saying that Saturday Night Live in the 2000s experienced a creative, comedy resurgence led initially by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, but carried on and improved upon by Kristin Wiig and continued by Kate MacKinnon and Cecily Strong. For about 10 years (at least!), the women players on SNL have been the reason to tune in. This is why Wiig’s performance in this movie is so baffling to me. She’s a fearless and versatile performer, who can go big or small, broad or subtle, wacky or dry, but Erin Gilbert is like a bad joke version of her character from Bridesmaids (also directed by Feig!). Almost everything she says in the movie falls flat.
Melissa McCarthy fares a little better, but at a price. Abby Yates is an earnest, committed character who conveys absolute belief in the strange things she says and the supernatural phenomena she encounters. None of the new Ghostbusters are really versions of the old team, but maybe Abby has a little bit of Ray Stantz in her. The child-like believer. That said, McCarthy is tied down. She never has an opportunity to play to her strengths as a performer or a comedian.
Kate MacKinnon is probably the funniest character in the movie, but also the most distracting. It’s almost like she got different stage and line direction than everyone else. Holtzmann says and does wacky weird things, but none of the other characters ever acknowledge it (except for one amusing exchange with Jones’ Patty Tolan). Bill Murray did a lot of improv in the original Ghostbusters, but Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd reacted to it. The best example is the scene where Dana Barrett is explaining her case and Venkman is pacing around acting like he’s in charge, doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and is really just trying to get to know this attractive woman who’s in the room. Ackroyd and Ramis give each other looks, they stutter for investigative strategies, and they are visibly trying to ignore what he’s doing while keeping a straight face for Dana. In this film, it’s almost like Holtzmann is playing to the audience—as in: us. She’s breaking the 4th wall in an unconscious way.
Leslie Jones’ Patty Tolan gets a decent turn. Jones isn’t exactly a subtle comedian, but she’s supposed to play the “everywoman” character and she nails it. She also reacts more naturally to what’s happening in a scene than the other characters do. If Holtzmann is playing to the audience, Tolan represents the audience. She has one particularly good sequence on the team’s first bust where she reacts to a frightening situation in probably the way we all would, proton pack or not.
Unfortunately, the cameos by the original cast are just embarrassing. I wish they had sat out the movie and let it stand on its own feet. This movie’s cardinal sin is making Bill Murray not funny. I won’t spoil his role, not that it matters, but his cameo is probably the worst of the bunch. I think Annie Potts comes out the best in the cameo department, but only because she’s allowed to utter her immortal line, “Whadda ya want?!”
I have to be fair, though: there were a few things I quite liked. I thought the movie was at its best once the opening exposition was done and the Ghostbusters were actively investigating the situation. When they were tracking down Rowan and figuring out what his “ghost summoning” devices did, it reminded me of how episodes of The Real Ghostbusters went. I mean that in a good way. Zach Woods’ brief role as a museum tour guide was solid casting. Maybe I just like him from The Office and Silicon Valley, but he made the most out of a small role. Finally, this is a geeky detail, but whoever did the visual effects for the proton streams was spot on. Perfectly animated. Orange with blue “electric” accents. I’m a stickler for dumb details like that, but they were well done.
There were some people who liked Ghostbusters (2016) and I don’t begrudge them that. On the contrary, I’m glad they enjoyed the movie they paid to see. I don’t go to the movies looking to hate what I’m about to see. In fact, I probably give movies too much latitude, especially comedies because I want to laugh. If I do, then I can forgive paper-thing plotting and characters. That’s why I like Judd Apatow movies—they’re thin on plot, but they’re usually so funny I don’t care. Unfortunately, Ghostbusters suffers from a bad script with a mediocre story, acted by inconsistent performers, and too few laughs.
For a reboot of an iconic film also thought to be one of the funniest comedies ever made, being average doesn’t cut it. And “average” from Paul Feig, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate MacKinnon isn’t just disappointing, but also a waste of money and talent.
Wait for this one on Netflix.
E. A. Bruce is the author of two books: Titan and Titan: The Dark Path. He is the Admin for Twin Peaks – The Complete Experience and a regular contributor for Obnoxious and Anonymous. You can follow him on Twitter here and check out his blog here.