Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is a generally funny but mostly weightless callback to its more fully fleshed-out predecessor.
In 1984, Columbia Pictures released Ghostbusters, a brilliantly zany film about a group of disgraced scientists in New York City who start a ghost-trapping business and end up as the city’s only hope when a bunch of ghosts are unleashed by an ancient deity known as Gozer who assumes the form of a giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Based on an idea by Dan Aykroyd, co-written by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, and directed by Ivan Reitman, the film was well-written, fun and funny. It featured an original story, likable characters, a stellar cast of comedy stars, memorable scenes, quotable lines, fun practical effects and a bit of heart. 1984’s Ghostbusters was a commercial and critical hit that, 30 years later, remains beloved by many. It spawned a sequel along with some cartoon spin-offs, and now, a Paul Feig-directed reboot starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.
As a reboot, the new film – whose title was recently modified (according to the credits) from simply Ghostbusters to the more differentiated Ghostbusters: Answer The Call – imagines a modern-day New York City in which the events of the 1984 film never took place. Instead, a different group of disgraced scientists – this time women – follow a similar but slightly modified storyline to the one that played out in the original.
This Ghostbusters, like the first, features a strong lineup of modern comedy stars and – depending on how partial you are to the brand of humor in Paul Feig’s other movies (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) – is also fairly funny. Most of its other elements: story, characters, heart – pale in comparison to the original Ghostbusters.
It’s hard to review Ghostbusters: Answer the Call on its own merit without comparing it to the first Ghostbusters, in part because it references its own source material constantly.
The characters, while not exact replications, each have a counterpart from the original: McCarthy’s Abbey Yates is comparable to Aykroyd’s enthusiastic parapsychologist Ray Stantz, Wiig’s Erin Gilbert is perhaps closest to Bill Murray’s Venkman (although her buttoned-up character lacks many of the characteristics that made Venkman charming), McKinnon’s Hollzman is the geeky tech meister to Ramis’ Spengler, and Leslie Jones’ Patty Tolan is the everyman latecomer to Ernie Hudson’s Winston. Each of these new cast members delivers a performance that, similar to that of a Saturday Night Live skit, is funny, but offers little in terms of emotional depth. Perhaps emotional depth wasn’t something the studio (Sony) was aiming for with its big budget, action-horror-comedy summer release, nor screenwriters Paul Feig and Katie Dippold when they wrote the script (if they did, it was lost in translation), but it would have helped give the film a bit of sticking power.
Plot-wise, scene after scene mirrors the 1984 film – some to more successful end effect than others (the opening scenes in the haunted mansion that echo those of the library in the first movie are particularly good). Where bigger variations in the story occur, they are mostly changes for the worse. In the first Ghostbusters, a blossoming relationship between Bill Murray’s Venkman and the Ghostbusters’ first customer, Dana (Sigourney Weaver), adds heart, humor and stakes. The new Ghostbusters opts to leave this story element out. The closest thing to it is Erin’s (Wiig) attraction to the Ghostbusters’ hunky but clueless receptionist, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), but that’s more of a running gag than a plot line. The culling of the romantic storyline of the original would be fine except that it is replaced instead by, well, nothing – which leaves the middle and end of the movie feeling rather empty.
Substance is what’s lacking overall. The main villain, Rowan (Neil Casey), is a disgruntled nerd – which sounds funnier than it is – and his character, as a movie villain by any standards, is pretty weak. The stakes feel low for a movie about the potential destruction of the world by supernatural forces. When – as seen in the trailer – Kevin gets possessed, there’s nothing for us to feel about it, because his character is so one-dimensional. In the later part of the movie, the humor takes a back burner to action sequences full of big, but mostly uninspired CGI effects that will work best in 3D, if mainly to help distract from the thinness of the story.
Not unlike the original, this movie wants us to root for its heroes as underdogs – the difference is that this one spends quite a bit more time focusing on the Ghostbusters’ desires to prove to the world that their efforts are valid. That its heroes are women – three of whom are played by actresses in their 40’s – is not irrelevant. And in hindsight, neither is the fact that the movie itself was widely panned before it even opened. It’s like the movie is a metaphor for itself. “Haters be damned! Girls (and reboots) can kick ass (and be funny) too!” is the message. It’s an important message (the girl part, at least) and is actually the best thing about the film. It’s thoroughly refreshing (for me at least, as a woman) to see women kicking ghost ass on a big screen, and if it can empower or inspire young girls (and boys for that matter) then all the better. But, it seems the filmmakers got so caught up in conveying the message that they kind of lost their way and forgot to focus on telling a good story or making us care about the characters. By the time the end rolls around it’s a mostly jumbled mess.
Throughout the film, there are winks and nods to the original along with a string of cameos. In theory these “homages” would be a good idea as a matter of reverence, but as executed, they feel almost like an apology of some kind. There’s a tastefully done “cameo” nod to the late Harold Ramis, and Sigourney Weaver offers a nice (but all too brief) pass-the-torch kind of moment during the end credits, but most of the cameos do little more than serve as a reminder that a better Ghostbusters exists, but that it was made a long time ago by a different group of people. It would have been awesome if the folks behind the new Ghostbusters would have found a way to incorporate some of the old cast in a more meaningful way, giving them more to chew on, integrating them into the plot more substantially, or at least making their brief moments funnier (Bill Murray’s cameo against type from his Venkman character only makes us miss Venkman more).
As a whole, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is a lightweight, silly but tame comedy that suffers from a thin story and one-dimensional characterization. It offers some laughs, some fun moments, and some refreshing girl-power, but plays more like an extended SNL-skit than a fully-fleshed out film. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s cameo as a parade balloon is representative of the reboot itself: a mostly weightless, cartoonish callback that falls flat towards the end. For an older generation of Ghostbusters fans, it’s a ghost of the original, back to haunt us as a thin visage of its living, breathing self. For a new generation, it’s standard, big-budget, summer studio fare, complete with product placement and a hint at a sequel. With a pair of 3D glasses, a large popcorn and your favorite candy, audiences can expect to be at least mildly entertained and to laugh (maybe a little, maybe a lot). Just don’t expect a movie that will haunt you much further than the theater door.