Ghostbusters is a great sitcom but not such a great summer blockbuster.
The new Ghostbusters movie caused a bit of a stir in the months leading up to its release – the undeserving victim of some truly noxious sexist and racist vitriol, much of which masqueraded as complaints that the new movie doesn’t and can’t recapture the spirit of the original and therefore, in some unexplainable way, destroys childhoods.
Whether or not it does “capture the spirit of the original” is an immaterial question – to me at least, because I don’t remember the original well enough to make any meaningful judgment or comparison. More than other films, Ghostbusters should be judged on its own merits, irrespective of its legacy – because of the negativity that it has unfairly garnered with director Paul Feig’s bold decision to have an all-woman lead cast.
Unfortunately, while it can be uproariously funny much of the time, Ghostbusters just doesn’t have the narrative coherence or a compelling enough conflict to elevate it into the realm of the good summer blockbuster, irrespective of how it handles the legacy of the original.
Ghostbusters’ greatest strength is in the humor generated by the interactions between the members of its main cast with each other and with the oddballs that surround them. The big four – Kristen Wiig as physicist-for-tenure Erin Gilbert, Melissa McCarthy as supernatural researcher Abby Yates, Kate McKinnon as slightly crazed engineer Jillian Holtzmann, and Leslie Jones as former MTA station attendant-turned-Ghostbuster Patty Tolan – play off each other with the frenetic fluency befitting of their collective backgrounds in comedy, stand-up, and improv.
Their hangers-on are no comedic slouches either – Chris Hemsworth pulls off a mindbogglingly adroit comedic study of the stereotypical empty-headed hot secretary Kevin, while Neil Casey is top-notch weirdo as put-upon bad guy Rowan North.
The scenes in the first half of the movie are where it shines brightest. The interactions of the main cast as they start to convene their ghost-busting team, their first adventures with catching errant ghosts, feel like a feature film SNL comedy sketch without the laugh-track. Highlight scenes include everything with Kevin and the high-strung theatre manager (presiding over a rock concert, of all things). The big four plus Kevin conceivably make the greatest comedy trope of the 2016 summer blockbuster season.
But the laugh-a-minute pace of humor is actually also a symptom of the film’s lack of character interest, because the incessant quipping takes away from the genuineness of the characters. For all of Holtzmann’s hilarious quirks, she’s little more than a comedic trope – more an archetype for the manic pixie girl than a character. Patty, unfortunately, feels like the token black sidekick. And Kevin, for all his weirdnesses, is such an extreme case of empty-headedness that his character lacks verisimilitude.
As such, the film feels like a sitcom. The acting suffers for it – there’s always a hint that the characters are clued in on the fact that they just delivered a punchline and are overcompensating for that fact by appearing too deadpan. The characters, and by extension, the film, are a little too self-conscious that they’re being funny. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the film were a sitcom – but it’s a 2 hour feature movie, and the sitcom format detracts from that.
And we see the effects of it in the second half of the film, when the big bad starts to emerge and the action and drama start to emerge in full force. The latter half, somewhat predictably, sees the Ghostbusters taking on a supernatural menace that has engulfed the entire city of New York. This is the part where they’re supposed to reveal to us how they’ve really grown into each other as a team, but their lack of character development hamstrings the emotional payoffs that Feig tries to put in near the end of the film.
The film also suffers from some lapses in plot logic during the fight scenes – many classic problems that are the consequence of lazy writing (i.e. not respecting the audience): like the villain being inconsistent with the application of his powers, with the Ghostbusters’ proton beams suddenly increasing in power from what was portrayed before to be able to deal with the enemy, to the city magically restoring itself to the condition it was before the opening of the portal to the other side.
That being said, Ghostbusters was a very entertaining experience, especially in the first half, although it did get a bit tiresome in the second. I hope the sequel plays to the strengths of the Ghostbusters and further builds their relationships, to make them a more believable as real characters as opposed to comedic foils to each other. Ironically, I think that Ghostbusters might do better as a television series – more akin to the sitcom style that characterised the first half – with a ghost-of-the-week type deal – than as a series of films with bigger-than-life villains and CGI-heavy action sequences.
I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 proton fists