Friday, July 15, 2016

Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters (2016)

Rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some crude humor

Score: 3 out of 5

The modern reboot of the '80s comedy classic Ghostbusters was controversial from the word "go", and mostly for very silly and unfortunate reasons. Legitimate criticisms could be leveled at the decision to even try remaking this film in the first place, given the track record of recent remakes of '80s classics, especially given how much of a lightning-in-a-bottle thing the first film was. Hell, even the original cast and writer/director couldn't recapture the magic when they made Ghostbusters II in 1989, a film that, while it had its moments, is generally agreed by most fans to be a pale shadow of the original at best. Furthermore, the trailers for this flick... weren't that great. If I'm feeling charitable, I'd say they looked like an above-average Adam Sandler vehicle, and if I'm not, I'd say they made this film look like the next big action/comedy dud like R.I.P.D. or Pixels. Furthermore, a "proper" Ghostbusters III had been rumored and sitting in development hell for over twenty years, and the announcement of this film, shortly after the death of Harold Ramis, seemed like the final nails in the coffin for the dream that many longtime fans held.

That's not the reason this movie grew so infamous, however. After all, nearly everybody smelled the 2014 version of RoboCop coming from a mile away, and yet there was never the same level of organized outrage directed towards it as there was aimed at this film. No, the thing that really got people up in arms about the Paul Feig-helmed reimagining of Ghostbusters was the fact that the four leads here were -- gasp! -- played by women. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and current Saturday Night Live stars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones would be driving the Ecto-1, firing proton packs, and filling the jumpsuits of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and the late Harold Ramis, and for some in the darker corners of the web, that was enough to make them hate this film before we had seen a trailer, a poster, or even a production still. They weren't the sole reason for the backlash, but they were definitely the ones who kicked it into overdrive. To me, that was perhaps the stupidest reason to ever not want to watch this. Complaining that four of the best comic actors, male or female, working today have been cast as the leads in the remake of one of your favorite films, simply because they're women, smacks of some very disquieting attitudes, and as such, it sparked a counter-backlash of people who wanted this film to succeed simply to spite them -- a counter-backlash that I often found myself somewhat sympathizing with. At the same time, however, the trailers, combined with reports of behind-the-scenes production difficulties, had me seriously worried, not only that this film would be a colossal disappointment that would fail to live up to the original, but also that it would merely wind up giving rhetorical ammunition to some of the biggest assholes on the internet.

And it seems likely that everybody involved in this film knew how much pressure they were under, because the finished product here? It's good. Pretty damn good, in fact. Yes, it's flawed. Yes, it suffers heavily in comparison with the original. Yes, the plot feels undercooked. At the end of the day, though, it's also a funny, madcap joyride brimming with energy and guided by some very talented people both in front of and behind the camera. Ghostbusters '16 is not only very much not the disaster that its most fervent critics have been praying for, it stands on its own two feet as a good, if deeply imperfect, film in its own right.

The film starts with Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physics professor at Columbia University who is up for tenure, only to find that her old friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) has rereleased a book about the paranormal that they'd written together long ago. Having long ago distanced herself from the book and fearing that it will stain her reputation and her career, Erin goes to confront Abby at the inner-city technical college where she works, running a paranormal research unit with Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) that seeks to find ways to capture ghosts. Sure enough, Erin gets caught up with them on a ghost-hunting mission that convinces her that, just maybe, what she wrote in that book had more than a grain of truth to it, and when the Columbia administration looks down on her rekindled belief in the paranormal, Erin and her new friends leave academia and become full-time ghost hunters. Together with Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA worker and amateur history buff who helps them find prime sites of paranormal activity, and Kevin Beckman (Chris Hemsworth), a handsome yet profoundly stupid hipster who gets hired as their receptionist based solely on his looks, the Ghostbusters quickly make a name for themselves and become the subject of debate and controversy over their "proof" of the supernatural. However, off in the distance, Rowan (Neil Casey), a bitter hotel janitor who feels that life has slapped him around one too many times, is plotting to get revenge on a world that he thinks doesn't respect his brilliance, unleashing an army of ghosts upon New York to wreak havoc upon those he sees as little more than walking wastes of oxygen.

The biggest problems in this film come in the plot. Paul Feig's movies have always been more about being vehicles for jokes than coherent stories, an issue that dogged The Heat and even Spy, and it's as true here as it was there. Whether it's due to rewrites or editing, several scenes felt like they had been pared down or left on the cutting room floor, many of which would go a ways towards explaining some key plot details or providing resonance to the story. This is most apparent with the villain, Rowan, a dangerously unhinged mirror of the Ghostbusters who also doesn't get no respect from his peers, but rather than seek to prove himself in a productive manner, he sets out to "show them all" through violence. He's basically the stereotype of a spree killer, a disgruntled young man with a massive chip on his shoulder who feels that the whole world owes him something, only armed with weapons way more powerful than a semi-automatic rifle. It's noted that Erin and Abby's book had a major influence on his life, teaching him about both the paranormal and how to build his gadgets, and in one major confrontation, the Ghostbusters respond to his rant about being scorned by the world with a look of "yeah, we've been there too, buddy, now shut up." It was a solid base upon which to build a villain, and in my opinion, way more should've been done to establish and build upon the similarities between him and the Ghostbusters. The subtext was there, but not enough was done with it, the film more interested in mile-a-minute gags than anything. Who is this guy, what exactly happened to drive him mad, and could it be compared to something in Erin or Abby's own past that they reacted more productively to? It felt like large parts of Rowan's character were cut from the film, leaving a fairly boring, one-note villain with only hints of greater depth. A subplot involving Erin being separated from the rest of the team during the big third-act climax also feels like it was cut down, which produced a glaring plot hole concerning just how she managed to reunite with them. Overall, this is one that I'd like to see the deleted scenes from.

That said, the fact that I was laughing fairly consistently over the course of this film was enough to make up for deficiencies in the story department. Like I said, in Feig's movies, everything typically takes a backseat to the jokes and the characters, and that's true here as well. You can definitely feel that it's toned down from his usual R-rated fare, with quite a bit of juvenile slapstick and crude humor, though it's not nearly as bad in that department as the trailers suggested. (Seriously, whoever at Sony Pictures cut the trailers together ought to be sacked.) It's the characters who drive most of the jokes here, and they fly fast and furious. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy play, respectively, the straight woman and the loudmouth, two roles that they're typecast in but which they still know how to make work. Their friendship forms the core of the film, and fortunately, the two of them have great chemistry with each other and the rest of the team. Leslie Jones was also a hoot as Patty, with her combination of blue-collar toughness and real intelligence honed in her spare time. The real standout among the Ghostbusters, however, was Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann. She felt like she was either on drugs or just plain crazy in the best possible way, a smooth, badass lunatic who somehow manages to make a baggy, formless jumpsuit look good. She is going to be the breakout star of this film, mark my words. The ladies weren't the only funny ones here, though, because Chris Hemsworth was the other MVP of the cast as Kevin Beckman. A grown-up Ralph Wiggum who's coasted through life solely because he's attractive, he can barely manage any sort of real job that depends on more than just his appearance, even answering a phone. Hemsworth was clearly having a blast plumbing the depths of his character's stupidity, often to the level where you wonder how this guy has made it this long. This movie is at it's best when it's just letting the main characters do their thing, cracking wise and letting their chemistry do the magic. Not all the jokes work (if you've seen any of the trailers for this, you'd know that -- seriously, though, whoever made those trailers had their heads up their asses), but a whole ton of them do. (And yes, they do make a meta joke about the hate this movie received in the form of the characters reading internet comments on a video of theirs, one that had me and much of the theater cracking up.)

When it comes to the actual ghostbusting action, Feig once again proves that he's a solid, if unremarkable, filmmaker, even if the shaky story sometimes robs the events happening on screen of their stakes. Everybody gets a bunch of great moments to show off, whether it's when they're testing their gadgets or actually fighting ghosts. Visually, the ghosts look pretty sweet; even though the CGI is often thick and heavy, the stylization of the specters gives them an otherworldly feel, and many of them looked legitimately scary. This isn't a film that seeks to frighten the audience, though, especially not through slow-burn tension; rather, it's like a machine gun in how it gallops along from scene to scene. This rapid-fire pacing is a double-edged sword. When it came to the comedy side of the film, it allowed it to constantly hit me with good laughs, but there were many points when I wished that this movie would slow down and take its time. This pacing is a large part of the reason why I felt that the story was so thin, and consequently, why the third act, despite having a lot of fun scenes, kind of didn't work. The scene where Rowan resurrects the seedy Times Square of the '80s, despite it being visually impressive, is wasted as the new setting serves as little more than an arena for the Ghostbusters to kick ass; I would've loved to see Patty, the history buff, geeking out over the sight. Paradoxically, had this film slowed down to flesh out some plot points, it might've flowed a lot better.

The Bottom Line:

So this was the movie everybody was up in arms about: a very funny, slightly-above-average comedy that won't make you forget the original, but which is still an enjoyable outing at the movies, especially in a summer that, by and large, has been sadly thin on the ground when it comes to real standout blockbusters. If you're a fan of the modern, improv-heavy style of Hollywood comedy, you'll probably like this. Let's hope that, if this gets a sequel, there's a better script in the works. (Could you imagine James Wan or Edgar Wright doing this as a genuine horror-comedy?)

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