In most cases, it’s best to leave certain kinds of external context at the door when judging the quality of a new release. There are a few reasons why such an approach would be folly when considering Paul Feig’s all-female reboot/remake/whatever you want to call it Ghostbusters. The 1984 original has stood the test of time as a classic of deadpan comedy and surrealism, the product of a core group of actors seasoned by sketch comedy at Saturday Night Live and in the Second City. Remaking such a beloved property is dangerous (the shadow it casts is considerable), and the poorly received initial trailer did not help matters. Most would agree that the trailer could not have put the film’s best foot forward, and comedy trailers are always tricky beasts to wrangle successfully, but the clip did not become one of the most disliked videos in the history of YouTube simply because it was not very funny. There has been an undercurrent of internet rage stalking the project ever since it was announced, a mixture of various outbursts from the darker corners of nerddom mostly justified in their own minds by claims that Ghostbusters is a property too beloved to be remade (though the hidden context seems to point to the film being too beloved to be remade with women). It’s been an ugly and profoundly mean-spirited affair, and with the film’s actual release, it could be tough to disassociate the movie itself with the firestorm from which it emerged.
As a movie, it certainly leans into the groundwork laid by its predecessors. The team again consists of three scientists and an outsider. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) were former partners, having written a book on the paranormal, though Erin has distanced herself from that life in an attempt to forge a teaching career with her scientifically questionable past seen as an obstacle to tenure. Abby replaces her with the outsized personality and engineering skill of Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), but a run-in with an honest to goodness apparition at a local landmark brings Erin back into the fold. The team is rounded out by Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA employee with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the city and her own run-ins with the paranormal. They soon discover a series of devices hidden across the city that seem to generate ghost activity in the area, and have to race to the location at which everything seems to be converging, setting up a final confrontation to save the city.
Yes, that plot sounds familiar because it is, for the most part, pretty heavily overlapped with the 1984 original. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as neither Ghostbusters or Ghostbusters 2 hung their hats on strength of story, a tradition continued with the new generation. What made Ghostbusters a success, and what is a foundational need for all comedies, really, is the innate charm of the cast and the ability to generate laughs at a consistent clip. This has been a hallmark of Paul Feig projects prior to Ghostbusters, making it no surprise that those metrics happen to be where the film is at its strongest. With three of the core cast (Wiig, McKinnon and Jones) either past or current members of Saturday Night Live, and Melissa McCarthy proven to be a gifted comedian and improvisor in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy (all Paul Feig films), the actresses have the bona fides to keep the jokes coming fast and loose. This is perhaps the most restrained we’ve seen McCarthy in some time, as the PG-13 rating keeps her colorful mouth in check. Wiig is equally restrained, fully embracing the straight woman role, the somewhat normal personality for all the wackiness to bounce off of. Wiig has always toed the line between seriousness and shtick, with this turn more heavily weighted toward the serious. Much of that shtick has been taken over by McKinnon, who relentlessly mugs her way through her scenes, a highlight to some, though the overwhelming nature of it can have an expiration date by the time the fourth half hour rolls around. It is commendable that Leslie Jones is given quite a bit more to do than Ernie Hudson, contributing to the team in a way that has legs beyond an affirmative action move.
The men in the cast, however, fare much worse. Aside a strong extended cameo from the increasingly dependable Zach Woods, the two main male members of the cast represent Ghostbusters at its weakest. Sliding into the Annie Potts secretary role, Chris Hemsworth is certainly game playing perhaps the dumbest human being on the planet, but the one-note nature of his gimmick wears thin faster than one might expect. After his Thor performances and Cabin in the Woods, it is no surprise that Hemsworth has comedic talent, and it’s a shame he could not have been given more to do. He is still far better off than Neil Casey, who is saddled with a villain that makes those terrible nondescript Marvel movie belligerents look like geniuses. An entity of pure plot, Rowan North is dead on arrival on the page, and try as he might, Casey cannot resurrect his character’s corpse. The problems with Hemsworth and Casey’s characters are emblematic of Ghostbusters’ greater sins; whenever the film focuses on the innate charm and charisma of its leading ladies, it is often wildly entertaining, but when the plot rears its ugly head, everything falls apart.
It is clear that a big budget tentpole PG-13 comedy is not playing to Paul Feig’s strengths. The restraint necessary to keep the film from tipping over into R-rated territory is palpable, and in the long run it probably hinders the movie more than the inroads the lower rating opens up would help matters. Too much of Ghostbusters feels choppy and perfunctory, too often out of its comfort zone. It is a bit of a sticky wicket, a movie experience with about as many positives as it has negatives. The grand irony of it all is this profoundly divisive film, the trailer that launched a thousand hot takes, is far too mediocre to be worth the reams of paper written about it. It can’t decide whether to fully distance itself from its pedigree by swapping gender roles and archetypes, or to embrace the nostalgia with a revolving door of cameos, so it does both. It seems intent to have a more coherent plot than the original, but falls on its face when telling its story. It is clear that a Paul Feig movie starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones could be both a big hit and a quality comedy, but there are too many obstacles in their way to make the sort of unbridled roller coaster that made Bridesmaids and Spy so successful. Ghostbusters is fine for the most part, and there are enough laughs throughout to sustain it, but with the hullabaloo surrounding it, fine doesn’t count for much.