Comedies are tough to rate halfway-objectively at the best of times. This is not the best of times.
The usual tricky issues of mood (personal mood and the collective mood in the cinema), expectation, and good old personal taste are amplified in the case of Ghostbusters by the impossible-to-ignore conversation surrounding the film. Seemingly countless commenters wrote the film off long ago and, as vitriol has intensified, people on the other side are going into cinemas with a steely determination to enjoy themselves at any cost.
After the usual concerns around remakes in general were heightened by backlash at the specific idea of a female Ghostbusters, it would be nearly impossible for the film not to acknowledge the hype and extreme debate surrounding it. That it finds clever ways to puncture its critics while keeping a warm-hearted tone throughout is an early sign that beneath all those waves of subjectivity, the core of this film is a good one.
After opening with a fairly effective tone-setting haunted house scene, which lands a few laughs while just about hitting the line between being knowing and creepy, this version of Ghostbusters veers hard into an increasingly rare cinematic pleasure: the kind of laidback character-grounded comedy the original Ghostbusters exemplified. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) sit at the film’s heart, with a clear dynamic from the start. Gilbert, now a career academic, regrets having once written a book about the supernatural with Yates, who stands by it and has started publishing it to fund her continued ghost hunting.
There is plenty of plot fuel in that idea, but interestingly Ghostbusters decides to leave it mostly on the backburn, informing the two characters’ interactions rather than having the plot turn melodramatically on it. That decision is a mixed one, leaving the emotional side of the story surprisingly underplayed while opening up space for two near-perfect supporting performances.
Kate McKinnon, as McCarthy’s engineer sidekick Holtzmann, is the scene-stealing ball of weird charisma the film needs her to be. Mid-watch it feels like she has been given all the best lines but, as with so many of the original Ghostbusters’ memorable moments, it is actually her oddball delivery making the lines sing. Beyond the wordplay, McKinnon’s look, her role in the plot, and her ineffable facial expressions combine into a sublime comic creation, and her light, unworried touch is vital as the film tries to extricate itself from those tense early moments of “will this be any good?”.
Leslie Jones is the fourth actual ghostbuster, and also excels at a necessary role as the motormouth in a team of calmer voices, but aside from McKinnon the other breakout performance is Chris Hemsworth as the deeply sexy, deeply dumb secretary. His interview sequence is Ghostbusters’ first string of unbroken laughs, and they can’t help but keep returning to the well for more of his absurdly creative idiocy. As the plot starts to take over ahead of the film’s climax, Hemsworth’s physique even manages to play a role in contrasting with the villain of the piece.
In the most obvious stab at detractors, that villain is a put-upon young white man who lashes out because the world doesn’t get him. It is the kind of move that could be didactic and petty, but like everything else it is played so lightly and in such ridiculous circumstances that if anything it feels like useful shading, bringing the many, many broad aspects a little closer to earth while offering a villain with an actual justification (in his head at least).
Bill Murray’s cameo shows the same deftness: he plays a character who everyone thinks has the final say on whether the protagonists are frauds. That could play as a smug piece of metatextual whining, but the role is so minor, so silly, and played so broadly, that the self-referential humour preforms a valuable piece of heavy thematic lifting in a film otherwise so committed to being light.
That lightness is the film’s lasting effect. This Ghostbusters probably isn’t going to be a cultural force on the level of the original, lacking that tonal strangeness, and its odd concept and design only work as a reflection of the original 80s aesthetic. Plus it gets caught in all of those battles that captures all modern remakes, ultimately going down the Force Awakens route of allowing respect for the original to veer into fanservice a little too often.
Even in the context of 21st century comedies, there are plenty of films with more weight and more focused scripts. If there is anything special about this version, anything which manages to exceed the original, it is simply the speed and consistency of its jokes. Even on that level, Paul Feig likely produced a higher laugh ratio with Bridesmaids, although his take on Ghostbusters approaches that level.
The 80s Ghostbusters is a lot of things at once, to the point that it forgets to be a comedy at all for long swathes of its final third. This Ghostbusters, for better or worse, commits to being a reliable laugh generator in essentially every scene. That doesn’t make it a likely contender for cultural touchpoint, but it does make for a fun, refreshingly endearing couple of hours.
Dir: Paul Feig
Scr: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Hemsworth
Prd: Ivan Reitman, Amy Pascal
Music: Theodore Shapiro
DOP: Robert Yeoman
Runtime: 116 minutes
Ghostbusters is in UK cinemas now