Lukewarm, Familiar 'Ghostbusters' Ain't Afraid of No Nostalgia

Directed by: Paul Feig; Runtime: 116 minutes
Grade: C

From the day that the idea was announced up until its release, Paul Feig's take on the Ghostbusters phenomenon has been derogatorily referred to as being nothing more than a remake of the much-beloved 1984 classic ... only with a team of women donning the tan jumpsuits and proton packs. Some immediately dismissed the idea based on the "girl power" gimmick, while others -- like myself -- remained optimistic about what director Feig and his writers could construct with a cast comprised of Bridesmaids and Saturday Night Live alums, hopefully taking the franchise in a fresh, innovative direction. Alas, regardless of months of exaggerated bickering over feminism and nostalgia, those first sight-unseen impressions ended up being true: Feig's Ghostbusters does little to make this revival its own, materializing into a more literal duplication of the original film(s) than expected. These ladies needed their own identity, and this slightly-tweaked, serviceable homage to the franchise's legacy doesn't answer that call.

Feig and The Heat scribe Katie Dippold obviously see the first two Ghostbusters films< as a template to follow instead of inspiration from which to draw, starting things off with a spooky event involving an angry female apparition that pulls the discredited paranormal investigators out of the woodwork. That includes Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a professor on the cusp of tenure whose past involving published research into the "metaphysical" remained hidden ... until her once-colleague, Abby Yates (Melisa McCarthy), recently drudged it up to increase her own research department's revenue stream. Forced to cope with their waning reputations, the two reunite -- alongside Yates' assistant, the entirely idiosyncratic Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) -- to investigate the specter, which unearths the possibility of an ancient evil being unleashed upon the streets of New York. With the help of Patty (Leslie Jones), a savvy public transit employee who's had her own run-in with the paranormal, they form a team to research and potentially catch the supernatural forces with a host of fancy gadgets.

Ghostbusters can be seen as other-worldly territory for Paul Feig: firstly, he's working with a known property instead of an original concept, and secondly, he's operating within the space of a PG-13 rating instead of the R-rated raunchiness of Spyand his other hit-and-miss comedic ventures. Top that off with the pressures of respecting the franchise, and it's easy to understand why Feig and Katie Dippold might want to play it safe by duplicating the previous films' plot points with slight modifications, giving it the resemblance of a distinct personality while offering longstanding Ghostbusters fans some familiar surroundings. Unfortunately, Feig ad Dippold's script makes little to no effort to hide those clear echoes of the original, even including copious nudges and winks that serve as constant reminders of what Ivan Reitman and his crew conceived, from deliberate mentions of "mass hysteria" and "protonic reversal" to more meta references to overhead costs and memory-altering noxious fumes. There's no doubting that the folks behind the new team adore the originals, and, boy, do they want the audience to know it.

Instead, this new Ghostbusters picks and chooses its narrative battles, directing its energy to these new female characters and establishing the moving parts of this team's origin. Some of these 'busters aren't too shabby, such as Kate McKinnon's buggy sunglass-wearing Holtzmann, whose amplified personality produces unpredictable quips and goofy antics that generate laughs as she assembles -- and explains -- the dazzling gear for her comrades, frequently stealing the show. Leslie Jones' larger-than-life persona also works better than anticipated as their "streetwise" fourth wheel Patty. Conversely, director Feig overcompensates for critiques aimed at his previous films in establishing the characters portrayed by Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy: Wiig's meek, buttoned-up Erin stumbles as a tarnished academic reduced to bodily crack jokes and fawning over daffy receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), while Melissa McCarthy mutes her rambunctiousness as the down-to-earth heart of the team. Bold quirks from some and subdued personality types from others result in a hard-to-buy team that misuses the talent involved.

Underneath the borrowed plotting and the clumsy establishment of a new generation of Ghostbusters lies a flat, on-the-nose sense of humor, one that's overly geared toward a broad audience and tiptoes around the divisive female-centered design of this reboot. Alongside taking snipes at internet trolls and going way overboard with the brainless shenanigans of Chris Hemsworth's receptionist, director Feig latches onto zany gags that have more in common with Saturday morning cartoons than a live-action comedy. Yet, despite the spastic nature of many scenes, the spirit at center of Ghostbusters comes across as surprisingly restrained and wishy-washy, as if it's working really hard to coexist with its predecessor instead of blazing a trail with as much gusto as the ladies' proton packs can muster. Small, humorous running jokes divorced from the actual story, such as Abby's back-and-forth with a food delivery boy and Patty's relationship with a funeral home owner, almost feel like they belong in something else from Feig. These characters can be funny off on their own, but not so much when they're brought together as a unit.

As any kind of supernatural horror or action film, however, this Ghostbusters leaves a lot to be desired. Director Feig gets away with threadbare plots in his other works because their sole purpose is to string together comedic scenes; in his Ghostbusters, the jargon involving paranormal science and yet another gateway opening for a ghostly "apocalypse" really struggles with the trappings of blockbuster fare as it takes center stage in the messy final act. On top of more repetition from the previous films, it essentially gives up on making internal sense in service of bold, glitzy special effects that deliver very, very little of Feig's ambition to make it "really scary", undermined by its insistently multihued and non-threatening design. It's delightful to see a foursome of capable female heroes tearing through ghost after ghost, but the writing's lack of imagination and cleverness overshadows their charismatic pursuits against the underdeveloped threat against the city. Paul Feig had the tools and the talent at his disposal to make a sharp, exciting reboot that just so happened to be powered by women, but his Ghostbusters ends up being fuzzy on how to bring it all together.

Film review also appeared over at [LINK]


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