The idiotic braying of misogynistic, righteous anger that has nipped aggressively and constantly at that ankles of the new reworking of Ghostbusters necessitates an opening statement of opinion on its merits simply as a concept. As a resolute admirer of Ivan Reitman’s original film, I think swapping the genders of the characters donning jumpsuits and bearing proton packs is an inspired hook. If we’re going to continue to grope and stumble through the misty morass of a popular culture that values brand recognition over originality, then at least this simple yet significant twist gives the new Ghostbusters a reason for being above and beyond the desperation to alchemize nostalgia into gold. That I have a difficult time naming four current male comedic actors who’d be worth drawing together into a hefty tentpole feature is merely one more argument that writer-director Paul Feig was entirely correct when he pitched his vision of how to find fresh relevance in a quartet of paranormal exterminators who are made to feel good by the process of bustin’.
Feig co-wrote the screenplay with Katie Dippold, his collaborator on the 2013 action-comedy The Heat (and someone who deserves at least a dose of reverence because she is credited with authoring “Andy and April’s Fancy Party,” the arguable peak of Parks and Recreation‘s best season). They adhere close to the basic model of the original Ghostbusters, giving a band of misfit scientists (and one hired tag-along) cause to retreat from academia and start an unlikely New York City business. The problems with malevolent specters continue to mount, thus the Ghostbusters, once harassed by government officials, are eventually called upon to save the whole metropolis from comically macabre marauders. It’s a dandy template, but one that is no sure bet, as Reitman and all the same collaborators proved five years after their estimable success with the dismal Ghostbusters II. It takes a certain lucky magic to make it work, and I’m sorry to say that Feig’s film doesn’t have it.
The main problem is a common one for Feig’s cinematic work: there’s simply too much material packed into it. It’s inaccurate to simply complain the film is too long. Even though it pushes the two hour mark, it still clocks in ten minutes shorter than the original. Instead, Feig and Dippold layer in unnecessary stuff, especially in the form of psychological baggage. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is dogged by both lingering shame and inadequacy over her youthful outsider status (she was teased mercilessly because of her belief in ghosts) and guilt over abandoning Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), a former colleague who she eventually reunites with in order to form the Ghostbusters team (which also includes warped engineer Jillian Holtzmann, played by Kate McKinnon, and displaced transit worker and city lore expert Patty Tolan, played by Leslie Jones). Then there’s the constant introduction of new ghost-hunting gizmos, which provides a rough idea of how tedious the James Bond films would be if Q showed up with a new trunkful of plot points every twenty minutes or so.
Across his big-screen comedies, Feig has shown a unwillingness to pare down, cheerily adhering to Apatowian mindset that anything eliciting a chuckle from anyone is worth keeping. Feig, of course, collaborated with Judd Apatow on the great TV series Freaks and Geeks. There, it seems, the stringent controls of adhering to time allotments set by the network — not just in overall length, but also when act breaks needed to land to keep sponsors satisfied — served the creators well. The more pliable platform of film makes Feig lax. He keeps in too many soft jokes, and he layers in so much story that the value of everything gets blunted. There are inspired moments undercut by repetitiveness or simply made drab by the feeling they are part of a overlong procession rather than unique gems (a late barroom speech delivered by McKinnon is the most notable example of the latter).
The previously noted uproar against the film, delivered preemptively and with shocking hatred, put Feig into a tough spot. Make this new Ghostbusters too distinct, with the prior iteration set as fully aside as would be ideal, and the inane cries of ruined childhood would only grow louder. (Those cries weren’t going to go away, but surely all involved had no desire to stoke the existing flames.) Though I fully suspect it was Feig’s intent all along rather than a defensive reaction to early grousing, the film suffers from stultifying fan service. There’s a heaping woodpile of punchlines built on easy recognition rather than surprise or wit, and the conveyor line of cameos begin to feel assaultive in their deadening effect. In particular, there’s an anxious hamminess of the returning actors’ turns (there’s at least a moment afforded to every major surviving cast member of the original Ghostbusters, except Rick Moranis, who, to his immense credit, has better things to do with his time), as if Feig was worried the audience wouldn’t get the significance of who’s playing this hotel clerk or that taxi driver without some ha-cha-cha in the mix. In general, Feig seems incapable or uninterested in tempering the acting. There are needlessly broad takes — bordering on mugging — constantly flaring up among the supporting cast, all of which has the unfortunate effect of distracting from the splendid inventiveness of McKinnon, the one actor committed to delivering a performance that hasn’t quite been seen before.
I reiterate that I take no satisfaction in my disappointment. That seems especially important to note as the grotesque harassment of the women starring in Ghostbusters has only escalated since the film’s release, with Jones recently subjected to a barrage of online badgering masterminded by a human being so brazenly appalling it’s a wonder Donald Trump hasn’t already named him for a fantastic cabinet position. The 2016 version of Ghostbusters doesn’t work, but the dreadful crybabies have it wrong. It’s not the icky girls ruining the film. Instead, it’s the male in charge of the whole thing who’s at fault.