The Joys of Overthinking ‘Ghostbusters’ (and Other ’80s Comedies)

Journalists almost always need a peg to hang their story on — that’s just how things work. And with the death of Harold Ramis this week, Matt Phillips at Quartz got to write a piece he’s seemingly been thinking about for years: “Ghostbusters, the greatest movie ever made about Republican economic policy.”

You might not ultimately agree with Phillips’ argument that the 1984 classic is just as much “about the power of the US private sector and the magic of market discipline to transform anyone — even effete, over-educated academics — into heroes” as it is about busting ghosts, but it’s hard to deny that he makes enough intriguing points in the piece to get a room full of stoned MIT undergrads excited. While I take issue with Phillips’ conclusion that the film is “a Reaganite carnival of ideological triumph,” I couldn’t help but get to thinking about just how much the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man resembles a sailor in Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic 1925 work of Soviet propaganda, Battleship Potemkin.

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I tend to see things differently from Phillips, interpreting Ghostbusters as just another classic 1980s film that tapped into the “Regular Joe starts a business/hatches a get-rich-quick scheme, makes some jokes, and ends up getting the girl” formula that was so popular back then. To me, the movie’s ideals are more in the populist, Bruce Springsteen vein — and not in the way Ronald Reagan meant when he quoted “Born in the U.S.A.” during his reelection campaign, not realizing the song was actually about a disgruntled Vietnam vet who couldn’t find a job.

But I can’t really fault Phillips for trying. William Peck from the EPA certainly does end up looking like the kind of elitist, bureaucratic bag of tools who I’d expect to see shopping at the Park Slope Food Coop, and it’s possible to read Ghostbusters‘ plot as an example of the federal government trying to hold the small business owner down. More than anything, though, I applaud Phillips because I too have tried many times to impose big political and social themes on my favorite movies from the 1980s. Take Risky Business, another movie about a guy trying to start a business (in this case, Tom Cruise as a high school student turning his parents’ house into a brothel): it’s a commentary on the dark side of the bucolic suburbs! Beverly Hills Cop is about race and class; Spies Like Us is a commentary on the arms race; and Back to School is about our flawed educational system, which doesn’t work for children — like Rodney Dangerfield’s son-of-an-immigrant character — from certain ethnic and economic backgrounds.

The political discussion of the time probably did influence these films — it almost impossible for the contemporary state of the world and the culture not to creep into the art and entertainment of any era. That’s why it’s not so crazy to watch a romantic comedy in 2014 and come out wondering why the two main characters’ relationship has you thinking about our culture of fear in post-9/11 America. Other writers have rightly mentioned that Ghostbusters does have an anti-government feel to it (which doesn’t necessarily align it with either Democrats or Republicans). But whatever overly ambitious agendas they pursue, as a fellow amateur 1980s comedy conspiracy theorist, I have to tip my hat to them for their entertaining and thought-provoking attempts to impose deep meaning on the films of our childhood.