Ghostbusters Takes the Right Idea and Makes All the Wrong Moves

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Orange Is The New Black S4 Photo: Hopper Stone/SONY

What’s that spooky sound you hear throughout the much-anticipated, female-led remake of Ghostbusters — a sound that freezes the blood of comedians, that haunts the dreams of clowns? It’s the sound of silence, of dead air, of jokes dematerializing into the void. The new Ghostbusters isn’t a horror, exactly. It’s just misbegotten. It never lives.

The new team is Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, who’ve all had moments of fabulousness elsewhere. No problem with the casting! Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a professor teetering on the brink of tenure at Columbia, who’s desperate to bury a ghost-hunting history that could derail her cushy academic future — a history visible in the form of a book she wrote with Abby Yates (McCarthy) called, Ghosts From Our Past: Figuratively and Literally.

Erin and Abby were once besties, but Abby has found a new companion in the oddly manic Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), who goes by her last name. When the three trek to a historic Manhattan mansion, a female poltergeist pops up and slimes Erin but good — leading her to babble to a news camera that ghosts are real, in effect ending her Columbia dream.

Entering late is Jones’s Patty Tolan, an MTA employee who trails a ghost into the subway and begs to be part of the collective — and then, at the first sign of another ghost, yells, “I’m outta here! I had a good job at the MTA!” This put me in mind of all the brashly confident and suddenly a-skeered African-Americans who’ve haunted American comedies. Haven’t we evolved beyond that? Jones also handles most of the slapstick, crashing to the ground and piping up, “It’s okay! I’m cool!” She should write a memoir called, Jokes From My Past That Went Thud: Figuratively and Literally.

In the original, 1984 Ghostbusters it was fun to see un-macho comic actors holding giant machine ray-guns and hollering, “Light 'em up!” and it’s fun to see these women doing it, too. Neither group of Ghostbusters is anyone’s idea of a conventional paramilitary group. And the rays are amusingly colorful and jagged and crackly, like weaponized Tesla coils. But if you’re going to remake Ghostbusters, you have to come to grips with the fact that the original wasn’t just a blockbuster comedy, it was an event; a game-changer.

By 1984, Bill Murray and fellow Second City, National Lampoon, and Saturday Night Live vets had produced plenty of hits (Animal House, Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes), but nothing so corporate and mainstream — nothing with so big a budget and without the smutty, disreputable, countercultural vibe. Here was an epic, special-effects-laden comedy with The Exorcist/Poltergeist trappings directed in a rather square, conventional style, by Ivan Reitman. The revolutionary element was Murray’s dry, conviction-less, ironic persona, so different from clowns of the past. It was as if Murray were standing outside the action, not a hysteric like Lou Costello or “Curly” Howard but an imperturbable Bugs Bunny. His deadpan line, “He slimed me,” seemed momentous — audiences screamed. Instead of cringing at a super-sexualized Sigourney Weaver in the throes of possession by a demon called Zuul, Murray de-escalated the confrontation. His “Oh, Zuul, you nut!” entered the pantheon.

Ghostbusters might have signaled a deeper change, too. The critic J. Hoberman made the case that the movie sanctified — in hipster terms — the arrival of Reaganism. Too much of a stretch? Maybe not. The four ghostbusters began as scruffy outsiders, but by the end of the film they were celebrities policing the city for interlopers and making big bucks. Capitalism and hipsterism were historically poles apart, but here was a model for exuding countercultural irresponsibility while getting filthy rich.

You don’t have to buy that (I do) to understand that Ghostbusters marked a seismic shift, and that casting four women in the remake is meant as a seismic shift, too — especially since none of them are conventional glamour girls in tight-fitting clothes. The mere fact of its existence is empowering. But there’s no other controlling idea in this Ghostbusters. At one point, the women read aloud a real internet comment on the prospect of the movie—“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts” — and it would have been wonderful if even the ghosts seemed to think that women couldn’t do this job, if they were like macho internet trolls. The surviving male Ghostbusters could have briefly returned to reinforce the same point. (The National Lampoon was a boys club in which women were a bit of a drag — in the underrated Ghostbusters II, Murray’s Peter Venkman even refers to Weaver’s Dana as “the old ball-and-chain.”) But there’s barely an acknowledgement that it’s women triumphing in a job for which a large part of the population still believes they’re unsuited.

The closest thing to feminist role-reversal here is the casting of Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, as the male-bimbo receptionist. It’s basically one dumb blond joke stretched out over an entire movie, although it does give Erin a chance to ooh and ah over his physique and perhaps dispel the idea that she and Abby were more than best friends. The real waste of the movie is that Hemsworth and McCarthy’s characters are possessed by demons but Wiig is stuck with her anxious, buttoned-up role throughout. Wiig is the one with the genius for impressions: Why isn’t she allowed to show what happens when she’s cut loose?

In some early, strangely positive reviews, the attention has been on McKinnon, and she certainly gives Ghostbusters’s most intense and original performance. She’s an admirably precise comedian. Here, she has shocked-open eyes and a frozen smile (showing impressive teeth), and she plays antic little tricks, like Harpo Marx. I found her funnier for what she might do than for anything she does, though. And I was irritated by her first ghostly encounter, during which she stares as if she’s at a movie and eats from a can of Pringles — both dumb camp and egregious product placement.

How did this script by Katie Dippold and the director, Paul Feig, even get green-lit? They wrote a lame, obvious role for Neil Casey as the whacked-out villain, who dreams of flooding New York with ghosts and says, “Soon you will bow down before me!” McCarthy gets almost nothing distinctively McCarthy-ish, and I felt bad for Wiig, who, after her sliming, has to say, “That slime went everywhere — in every crack.” Yuck. There’s a good line hinging on the word “pester” and the effects are particularly good in a scene in which a giant, nasty demon materializes onstage at a hard-core concert and actually improves the number — but this is the sort of movie where Ozzy Osbourne gets hauled in to the deliver the stupid punch line.

Worst of all are the cameos by original Ghostbusters cast members playing different characters. The audience yelps when they appear, but only Annie Potts as a hotel desk clerk has any of the old comic zest. Murray is the most painful to watch. He plays a skeptic who doesn’t believe in ghosts and learns a hard lesson — which might have worked if he had some jazzy patter, if he’d been funny. But he can’t disguise his discomfort: He says his lines as if there’s a gun to his head. I know people get older, personas change, you can’t go back to what was. But I still thought of what a provocateur like Peter Venkman could have done in this scene and this entire dispirited movie. He could have made these actresses hellbent on proving that bitches will too hunt ghosts. Maybe then they’d have made this enterprise their own.