Monday, September 12, 2016

GHOSTBUSTERS Doesn't Quite Answer the Call


- No other movie this summer was the subject of more controversy than Ghostbusters. A remake of a beloved classic is always going to push the buttons of fans of the original - but the vitriol towards Paul Fieg's franchise reboot took on especially ugly tone - as a contingent of fans zeroed in on the new movie's all-female cast as the subject of their scorn. There's a lot to unpack here, for better or worse. So let's take a step back and look at the context in which this new Ghostbusters came to be. The thing is - personally, I don't like remakes and reboots, and wish Hollywood would produce less of them. Sure, you occasionally end up with a great movie - but even in those cases, you wonder if the material would have been better served creatively if it was allowed to be its own thing. Surely, there must be someone out there who has a wholly original take on supernatural crime-fighters that would not be beholden to what has come before. Then there's the issue of the Ghostbusters franchise itself. I'll be honest, I've never been 100% onboard. The fact is, the first movie is a really fun, funny example of genre-blending - mixing the snarky comedy of 70's/80's-era SNL with the high-concept, big-budget event-driven filmmaking that, at the time of the original film, was reaching its nadir. But as much as I enjoy Ghostbusters, it was never a movie that, for me, screamed "franchise." Maybe that's partly due to the disappointing second film. Maybe it's because, in general, comedies tend not to work as franchises. Maybe it's because it's now been decades since the original film, and Ghostbusters, in 2016, felt more like a piece of 80's nostalgia than a living, breathing fictional universe. Point being: whether the new movie was a sequel, remake, reboot, whatever - it would have taken something really cool, really creative, to get me that excited for more ghost bustin'.

But here's the flip-side: if you take the view that Hollywood will inevitably remake everything, then the extension of that is that, hey, they might as well do so in a way that's new and different and perhaps more inclusive of women and minorities than the original source material. So even if the idea of more Ghsotbusters never really excited me that much, period ... well, it's still cool that there are girls who will be getting four new jumpsuit-clad heroes of their own with this new movie.

But all of that meta-baggage aside, there's still the basic question of: is the movie good? And as far as Paul Feig's GHOSTBUSTERS goes, the movie is ... sort of okay. Ultimately, this is a movie that is 100% carried by its funny, uber-capable cast - an all-star lineup of some of the funniest females on the planet. Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and most especially Kate McKinnon elevate the movie and bring it to life by sheer force of will. Because, unfortunately, the script here is pretty inert, and the jokes tend to fall flat more often than they hit. But McKinnon, in particular, kills despite that, crafting a memorable character by constantly giving us little, outside-the-script moments that make us laugh, smile, and pretty much love everything about her insane and insanely-awesome character of Holtzmann. Holtzmann wins us over with each successive wild-eyed glance, mischievous smile, and gun-licking quirk. She's the best thing in the movie, and a testament to McKinnon's ability as a comedic performer. She's been SNL's MVP for the last few years, and should easily and quickly make the post-SNL transition to bonafide movie star. She's the real-deal.

But especially now, as I write this with the benefit of hindsight, I think back and am sort of amazed at how little of GHOSTBUSTERS has stuck with me in the weeks since I originally saw it. Really, the main takeaway for me was, to re-state the obvious, that Kate McKinnon was/is awesome. But that aside, what else does the new GHOSTBUSTERS really have to offer?

Certainly, it does not give us a memorable villain. Neil Casey's squirmy Rowan is utterly forgettable, and his convoluted evil plans make little sense. There are very little emotional stakes in the Ghostbusters' fight with him, and he's just sort of ... lame. At least the movie occasionally dazzles from a visual perspective, giving us some cool-looking ghosts for our heroes to do battle with. But even there, the film provides some short bursts of inspired visuals (like Holtzman's climactic slo-mo ghost-battle late in the film), but at times, it also feels a bit flat and less atmospheric than it should. I'm not asking for Crimson Peak here (okay, I guess I sort of am), but the movie almost never feels genuinely *creepy* in the way I wanted it to.

It also, sadly, struggles with comedy. Like I said, the movie's funniest moments are the ones that feel improvised - that feel like off-script stuff thrown in by McKinnon, etc. But the overall joke writing here is somewhat flat. There's no "cross the streams" moment that will be quoted for the rest of time immemorial. Weirdly, the movie also seems to put some major restraints on its talent. While McKinnon gets to be the breakout weirdo, and Lesli Jones gets to be Lesli Jones (a good thing, no question), Melissa McCarthy and Kristin Wiig both seem underserved by the script. They play straight-women to an extent that is sort of surprising. Wiig's Erin Gilbert is a tightly-wound professor who's long repressed her obsession with ghosts due to the level of professional embarrassment it caused. So of course, it's only a matter of time until she cracks and comes out of her shell, right? Not really. Other than one sorta-funny dance scene, Wiig spends the whole movie playing a pretty boring character. Trust me, I am all for Wiig playing more nuanced, subtle characters. I was a giant fan of her work with Bill Hader in the movie Skeleton Twins, for example. But this is GHOSTBUSTERS. This is not the movie in which I want a restrained Kristin Wiig - or a Wiig, for that matter, who barely even gets off a great comedic line of dialogue for the movie's entire running time. Surprisingly, it's Chris Hemsworth - as the Ghostbusters' dimwitted secretary - who gets the movie's most over-the-top and consistently funny lines. Hemsworth is great here, no question. But mostly, his stuff feels tangential to the main movie. As funny as he is, the movie would have been better off devoting less time to Hemsworth's antics and more time to its leading ladies, to its plot, and to its villain.

I don't want to undermine that, on one level, this version of GHOSTBUSTERS is a success simply in that it presents a mostly pretty-fun comedic romp starring some very naturally funny and charismatic women. Perhaps there is a net positive here in that girls will watch this movie and find the same sort of kick-ass, lovably weird role models that a generation of guys found when the original movie was released. Maybe that's enough. But I'm also not sure that this movie is really good or funny enough to leave that same sort of cultural impact in its wake. Time will tell, I guess. But if this movie is not the touchstone that Feig and co. wanted it to be - well, that's okay. Girls don't need a dusting-off of a decades-old franchise to be their touchstone. Someone out there will create something new and different and better that will be that thing. It's only a matter of time.

My Grade: C+

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