Silver Screen: Ghostbusters ***
It’s little surprise that nobody— the original filmmakers included— has been able to recreate the strange magic of 1984’s Ghostbusters. Its precarious balance of horror, comedy, and action blended for a unique tone difficult to recreate or maintain, like one of those elements that can only exist in a laboratory for a few fractions of a second before falling apart.
If you want to see how tough it is to pull off, just try rewatching Ghostbusters II.
But this is America circa 2016, and we’ve all collectively agreed to remake every beloved— or even kinda beliked— bit of pop culture from our childhoods before society’s inevitable collapse. (Tick tock, people, tick tock.)
With that edict in mind, director Paul Feig and his Heat collaborator Katie Dippold set out to make an all new Ghostbusters, or a sort of new Ghostbusters, or at the very least a new-seeming Ghostbusters that’s totally progressively different except when it circles back to the original. The result is a reasonably fun summer movie that’s often paralyzed by the decision of whether to leap into the future or wallow in the past. It’s a servant with too many masters— or, more aptly, a Keymaster with too many Zuuls.
Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new Ghostbusters sticks close to the template of its progenitor while making a few changes, some substantial, some cosmetic. The most obvious here, of course, is the gender flip, which sees four ladies picking up the proton packs.
Erin (Kristen Wiig) is a physicist with a legitimate academic career. She’s worried because her childhood pal Abby (Melissa McCarthy) recently republished a less-than-reputable book they cowrote seeking to legitimize the scientific study of the paranormal. Abby’s new oddball scientist pal Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) has gone so far as to rig up machines to catch and trap ghosts, which they need when former transit authority employee Patty (Leslie Jones) points them toward some very real-seeming ghosts she encountered in the subway system.
If you’ve seen the 1984 Ghostbusters, you’ll recognize all the story beats. Team gets booted from academia, starts improbable business that catches on when they foil a specter in a high-profile venue. The team becomes minor celebrities, then are smeared by the mayor’s office before being summoned to duty to stop a giant ghost portal from opening above a New York skyscraper.
This new Ghostbusters is at its best when it’s less familiar. Their headquarters located over a Chinese restaurant is a nifty diversion that paves the way for a fun running gag with an ambivalent delivery guy (Karan Soni). Their secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) is a hunky, self-obsessed hipster dope who becomes central to the plot, and new villain Rowan (Neil Casey) is a weaponized internet troll.
Though the team pretty neatly conforms to the broad types of the original foursome, they distinguish themselves nicely as the film goes on. In particular, Leslie Jones makes Patty both funnier and more fully realized than her counterpoint Ernie Hudson was able to do, short-shrifted as he was as a generic blue-collar audience surrogate.
McKinnon’s Holtzman is the movie’s most singular creation. The delightful McKinnon plays her just shy of fully unhinged, and in doing so she scores some of the biggest laughs. But she vacillates between scene stealer and frustrating distraction, making goofy faces and fidgeting in the background like she’s trying to rescue a terrible Saturday Night Live sketch through sheer force of will. She’s trying to cram comedy into every available space while pros Wiig and McCarthy are better able to let the jokes flow naturally from the characters. Of course, Wiig and McCarthy are two of the best actors around, period, comedy or drama, male or female, so they’re tough to keep up with. McKinnon is a tremendous asset who just needs to be used more judiciously— or at least edit around her Jim Carrey-esque physical hyperbole in the background while McCarthy is doing the lord’s work to keep the plot moving.
This Ghostbusters is more cartoonish and family friendly. It takes place in a candy-colored New York with little in the way of texture or grit, and the ghosts themselves are big, glowing computer-animated things unlikely to stalk little ones’ dreams like the hellhounds and zombified taxi drivers of the original. Feig conceives it more as a straightforward comedy than a genre hybrid.
So, do it. If you’re going to make a new Ghostbusters, make a new Ghostbusters. But the slavish fidelity to the plot points of the original and an overabundance of cameos, in-jokes, and references to the first movie weigh it down like cement shoes. One enjoyable appearance by a familiar face becomes “Okay, hey, there’s another one of those guys,” becomes an obligatory cameo checklist that doesn’t let up until the ending credits. Between the incessant callbacks to the 1984 version and too many metafictional nods toward the ridiculous online outrage over an all-girl Ghostbusters team, this film has precious little room to breathe and be its own movie. Which is a shame, because whatever new movie it would have been seems pretty cool.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.