Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is funny and visually delightful, buoyed by terrific comic performances. It does not live up to its 1984 namesake, but how could it? Ivan Reitman’s original film is a landmark, one that invents a sub-genre that still influences blockbusters to this day. One major difference between the 1984 classic and the new version is the type of comedy they pursue: the original script by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd focuses on ensemble chemistry, using droll dialogue to circle around a verbal punchline or imaginative visual gag. Feig and co-screenwriter Katie Dippold have a broader approach, one that celebrates individual performers instead of a bigger ensemble. That is not a bad thing, just different, and the only thing that could improve this remake is if Feig took even greater departures from his inspiration.
To that point, both Ghostbusters have a cold open where a hapless, soft-spoken innocent wanders into a haunting. In the new one, Zach Woods plays a tour guide in a haunted house who discovers that an evil spirit lurks in the basement. Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) learns about the haunting, but wants nothing to do with it: she once wrote a book about the paranormal, and how pursues tenure in Columbia’s physics department. Gilbert visits her co-author Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who wallows in obscurity because she pursues ghosts with her engineer partner Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). The three women team up, as they must, and go into business for themselves while a supernatural force threatens to destroy New York City. Along the way, they hire Patty (Leslie Jones), a former MTA worker whose encyclopedic knowledge of the city is valuable. They also hire Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as their moronic secretary because no one else was interested and he looks good in glasses.
A lot of Ghostbusters is intentionally familiar since Feig and producers want to reassure their audience that, yes, this franchise is safe in their hands. The car has the same basic design, as do the proton packs. The bigger problem are the set-pieces and overall structure, which borrow from the original film too heavily. There’s the scene where the Ghostbusters have a small victory in public, thereby launching their career. There’s another where nefarious humans scheme about a vague otherworldly threat. Some similarities are inevitable. Everyone who saw the new trailer knows that the Ghostbusters will do battle with all manner of spooks in the streets of New York. But Feig and Dippold use the source material as a crutch, to the point where their update nearly feels like a copy. Luckily, the actors and jokes are different enough so Ghostbusters nearly always gets the laugh.
Kate McKinnon steals the show as Holtzmann, which is a no brainer for anyone who has seen her on Saturday Night Live. Not since Will Ferrell has there been an SNL performer who can get her costars to break character; Holtzmann is larger than life, driven by a desire to create cool gadgets and freak out her colleagues. McKinnon has the best lines in Ghostbusters, and to Feig’s credit, he does not deploy her too much since the shtick could get old. Wiig and McCarthy are Feig veterans, and here they play it straight (more or less). McCarthy loses some of her brassy charm thanks to the PG13 rating – her nonstop profanity in Spy is a delight – while Wiig has a sub-plot involving her attraction to Kevin that is modest and cute. Leslie Jones is the most manic performer, one who uses her considerable volume to cut through tension and find giggles on the other side.
What matters more, and what makes the characters worth cheering, is how they rise to the challenge. The film spends a long time on how the Ghostbusters are hapless. In the climax, finally, they have power, grace, and humor. They do not quite work as a team – as I said, Feig focuses on individual development – but all four actors show they are capable of leading a tent pole blockbuster. In fact, they are so good that the cameos sometime get in the way. Several actors from the 1984 Ghostbusters pop up in this reboot (I won’t say exactly who), and their appearances are perfunctory. Unlike the 2009 Star Trek reboot, the script does integrate not older actors in an inventive way – I’m genuinely surprised none of them appear as ghosts. The supporting actors, including everyone from Andy Garcia to Michael K. Williams, fare much better since they blend seamlessly into the plot.
Beyond the charismatic cast and strong special effects, including an impressive CGI beast with genuine heft, the best part of Ghostbusters is its mean streak. Feig, Dippold, and the cast go after the film’s ongoing internet backlash in a big way. At first, the meta-references are gentle; there is a scene where Gilbert sees video of herself on YouTube, and Yates urges her to not read the comments. But then the film starts to tease out its villain, and a more biting attack emerges with it. Neil Casey plays Rowan, an awkward schlub who loathes everything the Ghostbusters represent. His dialogue sounds like pretentious, insipid talking points that we might find on a Men’s Rights blog. At one point, Rowan possesses Kevin, commenting on his sexy new body, which is icing on the cake because it reminds us how folks like him will never, ever be the chiseled Avenger they wish they could. Ever since this film has been announced, online haters posted bile about how the film will ruin their childhood. Ghostbusters will have the last laugh – the trolls just don’t know it yet.