If you”d told me that the worst thing about a new Ghostbusters film would be Bill Murray, I would have laughed in your face. And yet… here we are.
Paul Feig”s Ghostbusters is, above all else, a real Ghostbusters movie. If you”re a fan of the 1984 original (as most comedy fans are), one of the things that”s interesting as you watch this one is the way it echoes off of that film. It is no simple remake, but neither is it a radical reinvention of the core idea. It”s simply a different riff on the same idea, with a solid dose of fan service thrown in to help make the transition from the old to the new. The script, by Feig and Katie Dippold, does some big things different, and the choices they make are intriguing. First and foremost, though, Ghostbusters is a big fat slice of silly summer entertainment, confident and sometimes quite beautiful. It is the biggest stretch Feig”s made so far as a filmmaker, embracing the technical side of things in a way he never has so far, and stuffed chock full of affection for everything that makes Ghostbusters such an enduring favorite.
As the film opens, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is working to secure her tenure from Columbia University, and she”s very close. She has only one potential snag in her plan, a book she wrote years ago with her ex-friend Abbie Yates (Melissa McCarthy). The book was about the paranormal, and it nearly ruined Erin”s professional reputation. When Ed Mulgrave, the historian at a local historical mansion, comes to see Erin, he tells her that her book is available on Amazon, and that leads her to track down Abby, determined to get her to take the book down. Abby”s working with a new partner now, Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and she agrees to do what Erin asks as long as Erin introduces them to the people who claim the historical mansion is haunted. It”s a clean, strong set-up, and by the time they leave that mansion on that first visit, everyone”s off and running and fans can guess where things are headed.
Part of the problem with advertising a film like this is that most of the “jokes” are contextual. Feig is far more interested in behavioral comedy, and to be honest, that”s in keeping with the tradition of Ghostbusters. Many of the funniest lines in that film are only funny when you see them in the context of the movie, and even then, only if you buy into the characters and relationships. When Peter Venkman scolds Egon about that time he tried to drill a hole in his head and Egon mutters, “That would have worked if you hadn”t stopped me,” that”s not a gag line, per se. But it”s always funny to me because of the idea of this serious scientist attempting to trepan himself. Even the lines that everyone quotes from the film, like “He slimed me” or “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!” are funny because of everything around them and leading to them. That sense of humor is evident from the very beginning when Zach Woods (familiar to fans of Silicon Valley or The Office) appears as a tour guide at the haunted mansion. As he gives the tour, he throws away at least ten great lines (his description of an anti-Irish fence around the original mansion made me howl), and it sets a real tone right up front.
My favorite performance in the film is, easily, Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann. She”s absolutely exceptional here, and I feel like I only saw about half of what she did. Whether she”s the focus of a scene or lurking at the edge of the frame, she is constantly stealing scenes from almost everyone. I say almost because Chris Hemsworth hasn”t worked so hard to steal an entire movie since he first burst on the scene in 2009″s Star Trek reboot. Wiig and McCarthy have to carry the majority of the weight of the film as Erin and Abby, and instead of the film wedging in a love story for one or both of them, it”s clear that the real heart of the movie is the broken relationship between these old friends. Little by little, we see why they were driven apart in the first place, and it”s nice to see that neither one of them was “wrong.” Instead, it was more about how much ridicule someone can take before they give up the things that define them, and there”s real value in that as a character arc. Erin”s lifelong belief in the paranormal was tested by the way people reacted to her book, and she decided to turn her back on anything relating to it in favor of academia. Abby took it as a rejection of her as much as anything else, and the entire film traces the way the two of them eventually get back to that friendship that brought them together in the first place. It”s a really nice way to ground things and give the film an emotional spine.
Especially since the rest of it is so gloriously ridiculous. Rowan North (Neil Casey) is a very strange little man who has a plan for New York City, and even before Abby and Holtzmann and Erin get together, Rowan”s hard at work turning New York into a supernatural hot spot. One of his efforts is what brings Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) into contact with the Ghostbusters, and her knowledge of New York”s seedy history is what makes her a valuable addition to the team. Holtzmann is the tech nerd, and there”s way more gear here than there ever was in the original. Even after she invents the proton packs and the traps, Holtzmann is constantly refining and tweaking and creating new gear. She can”t help herself. She”s positively giddy at the opportunity that she”s got and the weirder things get, the more she seems to love it. Once they”ve got the offices up and running, they decide to hire a receptionist, and the moment Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) steps through the door, the office gets sillier by the second. Hemsworth has evidently been itching to do something like this, and all the pre-release hype he got for his brief role in last year”s Vacation actually pays off here. Kevin is a fount of preposterous lines, and every time you think he”s said the dumbest thing possible, he lowers the bar a bit more. It is a dedicated performance, and I love how Wiig reacts to him. At one point she describes him as being made of “pure muscle and babysoft skin,” and I”m pretty sure that”s all there is, with no brain to speak of. There are whole sequences that are terrific that have almost nothing to do with the actual story. It”s just these lunatics bouncing off each other. Feig can get huge laughs out of a job interview or Kevin selecting his head shots or the delivery of Chinese food by Karan Soni, who you”ll most likely recognize from his work in Deadpool earlier this year. There are so many strong performers here, all turning in solid supporting work, including Cecily Strong and Andy Garcia, Michael Kenneth Williams and Matt Walsh, Michael McDonald, Nate Corddry, Steve Higgins (who just taught my sons about twenty new ways to flip the bird), and a few faces that will be incredibly familiar to fans of the original Ghostbusters.
One of my favorite things about the original 1984 film is that the special effects really didn”t look like anything else. I just plain love the look of the proton packs in action. Those energy beams, and the specific color palette of the ghosts and the lasers, and the blue-collar aesthetic of the characters… it all works for me on a very basic level, and Feig and his team have steered directly into it. This film plays like the dream version of Ghostbusting that every ’80s kid had in their head after seeing the film, and especially in the third act when Feig cuts loose, it”s almost hallucinatory. It”s not easy to make a good comedy, but it”s really not easy to make one this beautiful on a visual level that also still feels loose and funny enough for improvisation and random left turns into lunacy. I do wish that they”d perhaps paid a little less tribute to the original because at times it feels like they stop the movie to wink at you about something. But that”s a small complaint, and most of the cameos are good fun. As I said at the top of this review, I was surprised to find that the Bill Murray moment is the least funny of the bunch, and it”s such a misfire of a scene that it feels like Murray tanked it out of boredom. Notoriously uninterested in making a sequel to the original films, Murray feels like a walking missed opportunity.
No matter. There are so many things that work that it doesn”t matter if the new take on the theme song is sort of terrible or if that one cameo doesn”t work. Robert Yeoman”s photography is lovely, Jefferson Sage”s production design evokes the original without merely aping it, and Theodore Shapiro”s score is solid, with just enough Elmer Bernstein in it to be impressive. My entire family, from my girlfriend to my kids, had a great time with it, and I feel like anyone willing to walk in with an open mind is going to immediately recognize this as the same Paul Feig who made Bridesmaids or Spy. He and Katie Dippold are a killer team, and they”ve been careful to give every character plenty to do. No one feels wasted, and no one feels like they”re superfluous.
The original Ghostbusters will always be a film that means something special to me. The good news is, there”s a whole new generation that”s about to feel that way about this one. And more power to them.
Ghostbusters is in theaters on July 15, 2016.