Everything that works in the new Ghostbusters movie revolves around the gathering of several comediennes and letting them play with humour outside of the usual female-trapped rom-com tropes. Everything that doesn’t work in the new Ghostbusters movie is, well, related to Ghostbusters. So instead of marveling at the hilarity of the feminine foursome onscreen, the main lingering thought that comes from watching Paul Feig’s reboot is some sort of rumination on how Hollywood over-evaluates brand recognition. Kind of a drag for a movie that’s trying to be breezy summertime entertainment.
The problems with this new Ghostbusters also highlight the apparent importance of an R rating for Feig’s humour. It seems a strange, if not entirely callous criticism that Feig requires constant cursing for his movie’s jokes to land, but the evidence is what it is. In fact, cursing isn’t just a large part of the dialogue in a Feig movie; it’s often woven directly into the main character arc. The Heat was based entirely around the ensuing hilarity of Sandra Bullock’s straight-laced cop getting in touch with her more profane side and Spy was a clever twist wherein Melissa McCarthy was a mild-mannered agent whose undercover alias turned her into a foul-mouthed McCarthy caricature.
So Ghostbusters’ PG-13 rating immediately cripples the comedic possibilities. It constantly feels like this team is holding back because we’ve seen them let loose before with such wild results. But a brand like Ghostbusters, no matter the actual audience reach, is famous enough that it needs to cast as wide a demographical net as possible. The decision to tone down the language is an understandable one with rocky results.
It doesn’t help that the movie has to spend pockets of its already brisk running time marking off items from a franchise iconography checklist. The story picks a new starting point, but once estranged pals and paranormal enthusiasts Abby (McCarthy) and Erin (Kristen Wiig) rekindle their friendship over the discovery of an actual ghost, this new Ghostbusters begins tripping over itself in an attempt to connect the various dots. They need the catchphrase, the outfits, the car, and a bunch of poltergeist-neutralizing gear, all of which is provided seamlessly enough, but in a self-conscious manner that zaps the jokes along with the monsters.
At least with the forming of the team comes the opportunity for supporting players Kate McKinnon (as loopy physics genius Holtzmann) and Leslie Jones (as subway worker and walking New York City encyclopedia Patty) to shine. These two make the mostly mediocre material work because their personalities are distinct, engaging, and memorable. Not all of their gags land (many don’t, really), but they’re interesting characters to have in the mix.
McCarthy is strangely on auto-pilot here, which doesn’t help when her character is already written to have multiple jokes revolving around Chinese food delivery. McCarthy’s past Feig collaborations have been prime examples of the script and McCarthy feeding each other to create something hilarious. Here, the script gives her little and responds with even less in return. Wiig fares somewhat better and has a few good moments, but she also feels wasted when considering her brilliant turn in Feig’s Bridesmaids.
It’s unfortunate that the female ensemble isn’t stronger and that their characters aren’t better written, because the movie’s best overall idea is that it morphs into a goofball riff on how Hollywood blockbusters favour one gender over the other. The men in the movie are either villains, cowards, or imbeciles. Well, that and Andy Garcia. With Feig’s touch, this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited, but rather just a lighthearted dose of humorous hyperbole. It would be a cleverer commentary if it were, you know, funnier, though.
The best aspect of the “useless men” gag is Chris Hemsworth’s dimwitted secretary Kevin, who may just be the stupidest character to ever parade in front of a camera. Hemsworth has previously proven to be quite adept at comedy (not so much at drama, as Ron Howard has twice proved) and here he gets to flex his comic muscles with such silliness as wearing glasses with no lenses so he can better scratch around his eye and refusing to answer the phone (his only work duty) because it somehow ended up in the office fish tank.
Kevin hurls non-sequiturs around like candy whenever he’s onscreen and Hemsworth seems far more comfortable playing dumb than playing serious, so his presence is a definite win for the movie. When combined with McKinnon and Jones, the movie amasses enough chuckles to avoid feeling like a complete comic bust.
There’s worth here beyond the jokes too, since it’s rare for a movie about a group of women to avoid any romantic subplots and to refuse to give the main female character a man to protect her. Even Feig’s otherwise superior Bridesmaids couldn’t resist punctuating protagonist Annie’s journey to self-love with an affable boyfriend. The closest Ghostbusters comes to a romantic relationship is Erin drooling over Kevin and, more interestingly, Holtzmann flirting with Erin.
Allowing the movie to be so focused on the women as friends and heroes instead of merely lovers or sidekicks opens the door for a valuable discussion on gender biases in Hollywood and it’s a discussion that Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold know needs to happen. So it’s too bad that their movie is so preoccupied with being a Ghostbusters follow-up, that it has to trudge through unimaginative CGI overload and a trio of extremely unfunny cameos that border on pathetic.
Feig’s latest is at its best when it’s just a tale of women participating in a plot that would normally feature men just because. In that sense, the Ghostbusters connection really puts the gender-bending in the spotlight. For that reason, it can be somewhat appreciated, but it still feels like its holding these ladies back, creating a need to fill a checklist that would be best tossed away. The intention is simple enough: the heroines bust some ghosts while we bust a gut, but the execution fizzles. Even though the talent involved clearly knows funny, the movie abruptly stalls when it pauses to show franchise icon Slimer or remind us yet again that Bill Murray looks perpetually bored onscreen nowadays. Some ghosts of Hollywood are best left in the past.