Even ‘Ghostbusters’ Can’t Avoid the Slime of Reboot Culture

It’s one of the stranger political stories of our time – perhaps even stranger than the presidential candidacy of Lord Business from The LEGO Movie – but here we are, in a world where a gender-swapped remake of an ‘80s comedy has been positioned as an Important Social Issue. On one side is co-writer/director Paul Feig and his cast of funny ladies, who’ve rebooted the 1984 smash Ghostbusters into a contemporary story of four women who, y’know, bust ghosts; lining up behind them are moviegoers, commentators, and other parties interested in a representation of women onscreen. Or “SJW”s, to borrow the parlance of the diaper-filling manbabies on the other side of the argument, who have whined from day one that they “feel slimed” by the reimagining, torpedoing YouTube and IMDb ratings while bleating their boycotts to anyone who’ll listen. So it’s a bit anticlimactic to discover that the new Ghostbusters is merely okay – neither great enough to quell its critics, nor bad enough to cheer them. It is, casting aside, a totally average studio comedy.

Well, perhaps a bit below average, considering it comes from Mr. Feig, whose last three directorial efforts (Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy) exhibited a sure hand with both female ensembles and big-canvas action. His script, penned with The Heat’s Katie Dippold, is indeed a top-to-bottom reimagining, concerning Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), estranged pals who once co-wrote a book about paranormal activity – a book that has now come back to haunt the respectable Gilbert as she goes for tenure. But all that goes out the window when Erin, Abby, and Abby’s new partner Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) start finding real life specters throughout New York City, with the help of Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA worker who knows everything there is to know about the NYC streets, and the tunnels beneath them.

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There are a handful of clever nods to the film’s off-screen controversy; most come in reference to ghostly encounter videos the women post on YouTube, which are greeted with comments like “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts” (“You’re not supposed to listen to what crazy people write in the middle of the night online,” scolds Abby), though there’s also a gleeful sense of loaded subtext in having Bill Murray ask the women, “Why are you pretending to catch ghosts?” Yet the savviest jab comes in the form of the villain, whom Abby correctly pegs as “one of the sad, pale ones,” stewing alone in a basement (no, really) and fuming to himself, “You have been bullied your entire life. Now you will be the bully.” Not hard to connect the dots there.

Those bits play; a lot of this does. Feig wisely plays the scares seriously, remembering the lesson of horror comedies all the way back to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein: if the horror is real, the laughs are more genuine. (The opening sequence, with Zack Woods getting the bejesus scared out of him, is top-shelf.) He also makes his action beats pop – the scenes of his crew suiting up and deploying their gadgetry in the field have a badass kick – and the climactic sequence of our heroes wisecracking their way through the apocalypse nicely captures the spirit of the original. Wiig doesn’t get a lot to do (she’s basically playing the straight woman of the gang), but her ogling of Chris Hemsworth, wonderfully oblivious as their astonishingly dumb but handsome receptionist, is a gift that keeps on giving. Feig has learned that angry McCarthy is the best McCarthy, and keeps that knowledge in his back pocket for special occasions. And Jones’s offhand riffing (“That is a room full of nightmares”) is a blast.

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But the picture’s MVP is McKinnon, who comes on like a goddamn thunderbolt and is funny literally every second she’s onscreen. Her Holtzman is a priceless comic creation, delightfully weird and uproariously off-balance; every sprung line reading, every off-balance comic beat, every eccentric cutaway is a treat. I’m not sure how she does what she does here, but this is a comic star-making performance, her McCarthy in Bridesmaids, her Galifianakis in The Hangover, her Belushi in Animal House. She’s less a supporting player than a force of nature, and her spotlight moment in the climax is a straight-up show-stopper.

If only the film itself were so reliable. Nothing on this earth is less translatable or quantifiable than comedy, so maybe you’ll find Ghostbusters a laugh riot from end to end. But this viewer found an odd abundance of dud lines, fumbling buttons, and comic sequences that just don’t land – a hit-to-miss ratio that’s bizarrely close for a Feig comedy. He never quite manages to get the momentum going, to make it sail from scene to scene with the confidence of his previous work. Those were great comedies; this one is pretty good. And Jesus, it’s certainly better than Ghostbusters II, to say nothing of whatever garbage Ghostbusters III Dan Aykroyd was trying to get made for a quarter of a century.

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If anything seems to break his rhythm, it’s the exhausting business of franchise tribute-paying and table-setting. All of the living leads – save the perpetually MIA Rick Moranis – contribute cameo appearances, and all of them stop the movie cold, because they’re called upon not to be funny, but simply to exist (I guess we’re supposed to turn to each other with a big ol’ grin and chuckle, “Dan Aykoyd just said ‘I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts,’ hyuk hyuk!”). Scenes like those – or the lengthy reveal of the iconic Ghostbusters logo, or the utterly nonsensical “Slimer” appearance, or the endless variations of the theme song – are presumably inserted to placate super-fans, and they’re cute enough. But it’s just the movie winking at us, and winking gets tiresome (unless Kate McKinnon’s doing it).

And before anything’s even happened in the movie, we’re greeted with the opening logo for “Ghost Corps: A Sony Pictures Company,” a reminder that oh right, they’re doing a whole dumb “cinematic universe” around this thing. So maybe that’s what’s so off-putting about positioning support of Ghostbusters as some kind of political protest: at the end of the day, it’s a piece of reheated Corporate Product, and the consequent necessities often translate directly into the picture’s weaknesses. Feig’s Ghostbusters finds itself weirdly stuck between the obligations of the franchise and the appeal of being its own goofy thing, and is measurably better when it veers towards the latter. In fact, its best elements – McKinnon’s gonzo genius, Hemsworth’s himbo act, the quartet’s comedy-team byplay, Andy Garcia thundering “Don’t EVER compare me to the Jaws mayor!” – have precious little to do with Ghostbusters at all.

In the end, the trouble with Ghostbusters isn’t that it’s a gender-swapped reboot; it’s that it’s a reboot, period. It’s well-made and entertaining and funny enough, and McKinnon is a whiz. But it left me wanting to see this cast in a Paul Feig movie.

Ghostbusters is out Friday.