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Entries in Ghostbusters [2016] (1)

Thursday
Jul142016

Ghostbusters (2016)

No More “Female Ghostbusters”, Please

I’m one of those men you’ve heard about. I was skeptical and more than a little annoyed when Sony announced that Paul Feig would helm a Ghostbusters reboot, featuring an all-female cast. For the record, my concerns had nothing to do with misogyny* and everything to do with cynicism.

Though Feig has worked in the industry for decades, co-creating Freaks and Geeks and directing TV series like The Office, he caught fire with 2011’s Bridesmaids. The sleeper mega-hit was hailed by critics and audiences as a hilarious and outrageously obscene gender-swapped version of The Hangover. I couldn’t stand it. And I couldn’t understand how a film that reveled in the worst stereotypes of women as catty, relationship-hungry bundles of neuroses got a pass as some sort of empowerment beacon. Yes, he Feig proved that extended diarrhea and vomit gags are not exclusively within the male purview. But is that how we define “progress” now?

It might be. In the years since, Feig has built a solid brand of very popular female-led comedies, none of which I find particularly funny or pleasant to watch. Though the performances and production values are uniformly top-notch, I’m amazed at how routinely (and successfully) Feig and muse Melissa McCarthy have gone back to the “obnoxious, overweight slob gets one over on attractive, polite society” well. I considered The Heat and Spy to just be longer versions of Chris Farley’s later movies.

Still here? Okay, back to the Sony announcement.

Instead of the long-rumored Ghostbusters 3, the studio revealed that Feig would direct a series reboot, and that he and The Heat co-writer Katie Dippold would completely separate their film from the 1984 original and its 1989 sequel. This claim led to many an arched eyebrow when the studio later confirmed that almost all of the original cast members would have cameos in the new movie—but not as the characters they’d made famous. It appeared Sony and Feig were only interested in Ghostbusters’ nostalgic brand-trappings (the logo, the proton packs, the Ecto-1) and could care less about that film’s heart and soul, which were the comedic contributions of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis. Effectively the new cast would inhabit a world in which ghosts (and Ghostbusters) never existed.

Then came the first trailer, which opened with, “30 years ago, four scientists saved New York”. Subsequent spots featured stars McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones facing down franchise staples Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man--as well as ghosts escaping what looked to be a massive containment unit; good-guy possession; and glowing, green swirly-clouds forming over New York City.

By this point, Feig’s movie had inspired countless news segments, magazine articles, and blog posts about the vile (and very real) misogyny that had begun as a minor infection and metastasized to encompass the whole conversation—thus overshadowing any discussion of the possibility that maybe Ghostbusters was just a calculated IP cash grab, a movie that wouldn’t even have to be good in order to kill among a proven demographic co-created by Feig and fomented by female-driven blockbusters like The Hunger Games. That’s where my head was at when sitting down to watch the “new” Ghostbusters.

I’m happy to say that all my concerns were unfounded, and that Feig has finally directed a film I not only like, but genuinely adore. With the exception of Captain America: Civil War, this is the best time I’ve had at the movies during this drab, drab summer.

Let’s begin (if we can call six hundred words deep a “beginning”) with what Ghostbusters is not. It is not a remake of the Ivan Reitman classic. Some of the beats are familiar, but the trailers do Feig a great disservice by suggesting his film is just a fresh coat of paint. The story centers on Columbia University professor Erin Gilbert (Wiig), whose shot at tenure is jeopardized when a controversial book she co-authored years ago resurfaces. Erin and former best friend Abby Yates (McCarthy) used to study the paranormal, and documented their research in a tome that Erin's hard-science-minded peers would definitely not approve of.

Erin's quest to destroy the few remaining copies leads her back to Abby and her new partner, Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), an eccentric fellow believer. The three scientists reluctantly team up to investigate a series of strange occurrences around the city, all involving devices planted at psychic hotspots by a creepy loner named Rowan (Neil Casey), who wants to kickstart Armageddon. Their team expands to include transit worker Patty Tolan (Jones), whose encyclopedic knowledge of NYC lore comes in very handy, and Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, the world's ditziest secretary.**

I won't go into further plot details, except to say that your reaction to Ghostbusters may depend on your reaction to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Both films rely heavily on a familiar skeletal structure, but the source material is buried under just enough meat to consider the whole a unique animal. The trailers don't lie: Ghostbusters 2016 shares many visual and thematic touchstones with Ghostbusters 1984 (and even Ghostbusters 2), but Feig and Dippold love taking left turns in their screenplay, introducing new twists that not only kept me on my toes, but made me curious about where the next film would go next.

Yes, I really want to see more of these Ghostbusters. The actors' rapport is unforced and uplifting; the movie's tone is improvisational but not sloppy, wacky but not gratuitous or muggy. The character dynamics are different here than with the 1984 cast. I couldn't peg one character as being the "Venkman" archetype or the "Stantz" archetype. McKinnon is a crazy inventor who looks like the cartoon version of Egon Spengler from the Real Ghostbusters cartoon show, but she doesn't ape Harold Ramis' iconic performance; she makes Jillian Holtzmann her own thing.

To touch on another minor controversy surrounding the new Ghostbusters, you need not worry about Leslie Jones' Patty character. The cries of racism and stereotyping from those who hadn't yet seen the film (but who were, in fairness, buoyed by trailers that unintentionally made their points for them) are, thankfully, unfounded. Patty is sassy and streetwise and doesn't talk in her teammates' collegiate vernacular, but she has agency. She's a real character. No one can accuse her of being just "the fourth Ghostbuster" (or worse yet, "just" "the black Ghostbuster").

Speaking of real characters, Feig finally manages to portray McCarthy as a smart, confidant woman whose plus-size isn't a character trait, a plot point, or the setup for endless, unfunny jokes. Abby is assertive instead of cartoonishly brutish, tender instead of wishy-washy; she's not a cat-lady who just needs a makeover or an adventure to realize her inner beauty and strength. This is the McCarthy who grabbed my attention on Gilmore Girls sixteen years ago, and for whose return I've been waiting ever since. Indeed, the majority of the humiliation gags fall to Wiig's Erin, who gets doused in gallons of green and blue slime throughout the movie--a role that, judging by Feig's track record, should have easily gone to McCarthy. 

My one big criticism of the film is that, during the second act, Feig and Dippold wander a bit too far down a brilliant but very delicate social-commentary path. I've heard grain-of-salt speculation that the screenplay was retooled, amidst the women-bashing controversy, to include anti-misogyny jokes and to make Rowan a caricature of white, male, anti-social internet trolls. Whether or not this is true, there's no denying that Feig and Dippold have an axe to grind with haters. For the most part, the blade is sharp, and the wielders obliterate their targets. But when McCarthy's character punches a pasty, oversized, screaming tantrum-ghost between the legs (before setting whatever's between those legs on fire), the filmmakers teeter on the edge of misandry.

That ghost, by the way, looks pretty awesome. Like Reitman's original film, the new Ghostbusters shows off some really creative and exceptionally well-rendered creature designs. To achieve the supernatural glowing effects on their humanoid apparitions, Feig's team placed LEDs on the actors, incorporating CGI enhancements in post-production. The result, fittingly, looks like something that doesn't quite belong in reality--otherworldly yet based in the practical. The truly monstrous creatures are sufficiently menacing and weird; perhaps not as iconic as Reitman's gargoyle hellhounds, but thirty years of technological advances allowed the filmmakers to at least expand the scope of their demons' mayhem.

I love this movie. Unlike the actual cynical branding exercise Jurassic World, Feig and company have created a work that stands on its own, while acknowledging the playful, friendship-driven spirit of what's come before. I hope the film is a massive hit with women and little girls because they deserve funny, strong, big-screen female characters who are neither the butts of bizarre gender-commentary jokes nor sullen mopes who adopt the worst traits of bland, male action stars in the name of "toughness" or "equality" or something.

I also hope it's a hit with skeptics in the fan community, male and female, and with guys who doubt that women can do anything--including take a torch and run with it. Mostly, I hope we can all just accept Feig's film as a welcome and reverent companion piece to Reitman's original; as a better movie than his 1989 sequel; and as, quite possibly, a more unique entry than whatever the scrapped third entry would have been. In my mind, this film is no longer "the female Ghostbusters". It's just Ghostbusters 2016.

*Of course I’d say that, right?

**Hemsworth is one of the film's secret weapons. An absolute stiff as Marvel's Thor, the actor demonstrates a looseness here that compliments the main performers without overshadowing them. Kevin's dumb as rocks, but also polite, charming, and eager to help his new friends--kind of like a beefcake version of Slimer from The Real Ghostbusters cartoon.