Chris Hemsworth film

GHOSTBUSTERS Review: Ain't Afraid of No Change (Except When It Is)

Monday, July 18, 2016 Rob Samuelson

From its earliest moments, the 2016 edition of Ghostbusters announces it will be a deviation from the norm that had been set by two films in the 1980s. Speed and character building -- not just relying on the charm and line deliveries of its stars like the old movies -- are the picture’s primary concerns, and also its strengths. It stumbles many times, especially when it directly connects itself to the previous entries in the series. But when it allows itself to do its own thing instead of being chained to franchising obligations, it is wildly enjoyable.

In the beginning, the jokes arrive at a breakneck pace during a tour, guided by Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods in a delirious cameo, of a supposedly haunted mansion in a ritzy section of New York City. Woods delivers one liners at a rate that barely allows the audience to keep up, a reflection of the current comedy landscape spawned by Tina Fey’s 30 Rock rather than, say, Caddyshack. This is intentional and it is one of the best decisions director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) and his co-writer, Katie Dippold, made in crafting the movie. They maintain a breathless pace for the entirety of the movie, giving the new Ghostbusters’ words and personalities a kinetic energy that grabs the viewers and carries them along what can sometimes be an uninspired narrative.

But above all else, those new Ghostbusters are the real deal. A major source of relief for anyone watching, these women are not direct translations of the four men who played Ghostbusters before. They are fully realized people with specific motivations and faults. Their personal foibles put them in a place of comedic desperation, where they feel they are left with no choice but to make this “joke” ghost catching profession work, because what the heck else are they going to do with their multiple advanced science degrees now that they have been made out to be laughingstocks for their belief in the paranormal?

That’s where Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig, reuniting with her Bridesmaids director) begins her journey. She is a nervous, stuffy professor -- she dresses like a librarian from the 1950s -- at what looks like Columbia. The reason for her wracked nerves is her past relationship with the alarmingly straightforward Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy, long a creative partner of Feig’s), with whom she wrote a book that posited that ghosts exist -- a book Erin desperately wants to be kept off the internet and bookshelves as she works on gaining tenure at her university. Abby works at a low-rent community college with a new partner, Jillian Holtzmann (Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon), a hyper-competitive physicist who builds all kinds of wacky ghost-detecting and fighting devices. Meanwhile, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, another current Saturday Night Live star) toils as an eternally perky attendant at a subway stop who is forever disappointed by the mean and downright bizarre passengers whose days she tries to improve with a smile -- an encounter with a ghost in the subway puts her in touch with the three scientists who are eager to employ her in a position that brings her more fulfillment.

The characterization is exquisite. Things are tough for these women, who are constantly seeking relevance for their beliefs, which are considered out of bounds by polite academia.  They are ruined, left with nowhere to turn but toward each other and the strange business they start on the top floor of an abandoned Chinese restaurant -- after touring the firehouse from the original Ghostbusters, the first of many hamfisted moments of fan service that feel more like studio-mandated pandering than a natural extension of what this film is trying to accomplish. This has the effect of instilling in everyone a gung ho attitude -- this better work or they’ll all be flipping burgers for a living. These personal stakes may not seem as important as the world-destroying paranormal meltdown that is planned by the movie’s human villain, Rowan (Neil Casey), but they are what give Ghostbusters weight, something to care about beyond terrific one liners, of which there are many. These characters have reasons for what they do and they are determined to prove they are correct about ghosts.

But Ghostbusters is not a heavy movie by any stretch of the imagination. Jokes fly, like the running gag of seeing how dumb the Ghostbusters’ new secretary, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), can get. His headshots feature him, shirtless, posing with a saxophone, but he can’t decide “which one makes me look more like a doctor.” The standard training montage puts McCarthy’s physical comedy skills on display, but it is her no-nonsense attitude that makes her a special character. Abby is not an angry loon, always making noise about her paranormal beliefs, but rather a rational type of person, exhausted by those who refuse to see the scientific evidence she gives them -- her irritation with the delivery guy whose restaurant can’t get her soup order right is also hilarious. Erin’s buttoned-up style cannot stand up against steady streams of ectoplasm. Patty’s desire to belong to something important gives her comically outsized amounts of strength when her friends are threatened. But Jillian steals the show, with a belief in herself that is unmatched by anyone on the planet, living or dead -- her confidence manifests itself in sexual come-ons to everyone around her.

Those wonderful characters and jokes come at the expense of a satisfying plot. It often lurches from moment to moment, letting the performers joke around with each other but not always pushing the story forward. The pacing is wonky, taking too long to set up the threat posed by Rowan, who is also given short shrift by the script. A heckled, socially awkward nerd who hates humanity is not the most inspired backstory, especially when he basically serves the purpose of being a guy who pushes the button that sets the climactic CGI extravaganza in motion. The best thing about the story, aside from the protagonists and the jokes, is that it is not recycling either plot of the original Ghostbusters movies. Rowan’s plan to build a bridge to the other side to “punish” the mean world doesn’t have the same level of character building as the Ghostbusters who oppose him, but at least it’s an original idea.

Not so original is the movie’s yawn-inducing deference to the old movies. Every living primary cast member appears, along with some particularly famous ghosts. There is almost nothing about this strategy that works. Nobody is integrated deftly and each cameo brings the movie to a screeching halt. It’s the studio brownnosing the people in the crowd by saying, “Hey, ‘memba this?” as a way to play on nostalgia. It keeps the 2016 Ghostbusters stuck in the past when it proves many times that it can build its own legacy just fine. Thankfully, these are nothing more than cameos.

Lame nostalgia aside, there is much to admire about Ghostbusters. Its freshness outweighs its faults, particularly when it gives us new fully fleshed out characters to hang out with. It is a densely packed comedic storm, one that will likely reward re-watches as you try to catch the joke that lands while you’re still catching your breath from the gag that preceded it by a couple seconds. That’s a job well done, folks.

Director: Paul Feig
Writers: Katie Dippold. Paul Feig
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five
Available in theaters now

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