Matt at the Movies: Ghostbusters
There's been no shortage of press around the new Ghostbusters reboot before it was even released because it dares to - gasp - star four women in the title roles as the famous proton-pack wielding foursome. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones replace the longstanding 'busters Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson in Paul Feig's new 2016 film. This is not a shared universe film, but a true reboot, treating the events of the previous two Ghostbusters films as if they never happened. The movie first made major waves when its first teaser trailer quickly became the most disliked YouTube video in history - more than Justin Bieber's "Baby," more than Rebecca Black's "Friday," more than any weird cat video (this is keeping in mind the views-to-rate ratio). It seems that a certain subset of men decided to team up and actively rate the trailer negatively because, in their eloquent words, "women just aren't funny."
Yeah. That really happened.
Which is unfortunate, because now Ghostbusters can't be reviewed or discussed on its own merits, or at least not outside of a larger conversation about gender roles and sexism on the Internet in 2016. (As the above ScreenCrush article points out, a whopping 59% of the most hated videos on YouTube are female-centric. How's that for a sobering statistic in our "progressive" era?). But I am going to attempt to put all of that aside, because I believe that it's even more important now that the movie is discussed on its own merits, and that the stars and director Paul Feig get due consideration regardless of the narrative, welcome or unwelcome, that surround their movie.
Here's the thing about Ghostbusters - like most films this summer, it doesn't really need to exist. The world didn't need another Ghostbusters movie any more than it needed another Independence Day, or another Tarzan. The real problem with Ghostbusters is not that it stars four women instead of men, it's that these four women, all very funny and exceptionally talented in their own way, had to retread something we've already seen rather than writing or starring in their own, original property. It speaks to the larger problem of Hollywood's over-dependence on sequels and franchises than anything else. But if a new Ghostbusters just had to exist, because it's a reliable property and there's an audience already built-in, then doing something different like casting women rather than men is the way to do it. It's a much better strategy than giving us our umpteenth Spider-Man, played by a progressively younger white actor each time.
Paul Feig, Melissa McCarthy, and co. have proven that they can deliver both critical and box office success when they are given the creative license to do so. I still burst out laughing thinking about the wedding dress scene in Bridesmaids. Spy and Heat were both impressive action comedies that may have played to stereotypes in their genre but at least did something new and different, and were genuinely funny while showing that women can and do deserve to headline not just comedies but action-comedies, buddy films, thrillers, and more. But with Ghostbusters, one can't help but feel as if the cast and crew were a little over encumbered by trying to pay homage to what came before.
Which isn't to say the film isn't funny, or fun. It is. Like usual, Feig and his stars are at their best when given free reign to improvise, or to let gags play out just enough that their repetitiveness becomes their strength. There's a great bit between Melissa McCarthy's character and a delivery guy over his repeated failures to get her order correct, and Chris Hemsworth as the idiotic "beefcake" the ladies hire as their secretary - and Kristen Wiig's reactions to him - is probably one of the funniest parts of the entire film. And at least the characters are new, each bringing their own set of quirky nuances to the team.
But aside from those admittedly thin features, not much else feels new here. The plot is a little convoluted, the characterization seems off-kilter (at one point, Leslie Jones' MTA worker is terrified of ghosts, and the next she's ready to kick butt by joining the team), and the ghosts themselves are nothing more than devices to move the story forward. A promising opening act about an heiress being locked in her family's mansion's basement goes ultimately nowhere. At the finale, as a cavalcade of ghosts get unleashed on Times Square, the specters begin a spooky parade reminiscent of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, because....they can? Because lots of people who were alive in the 1930s are now dead? It's not really clear, and it feels like it's out of nowhere. There's no real stakes either; the worst thing that a ghost does to a living person in the film is puke green slime all over them. When we get to the ultimate showdown in Times Square, predictably bigger and more elaborate than anything we've seen in the original two Ghostbusters, presumably because all movies know how to do anymore is get bigger and bigger, there's not much substantial riding on the outcome.
Which is fine, for a breezy summer comedy. But the original Ghostbusters was not a breezy summer comedy; it was a cultural zeitgeist. It's too bad that the new movie will always be compared to the original, because despite everyone's best efforts, we're left with a movie that is fun at parts, and funny at times, but ultimately forgettable. What's unfortunate about that is that there's a lot riding on the outcome of this silly summer reboot. And that's not really fair to it or to its stars. One can imagine that even if the movie managed to succeed in more places than it does, it still wouldn't live up to the intense scrutiny of the male gaze that has been thrust upon it -but really, no movie should in 2016.
Here's hoping that the film still does well enough to warrant a sequel - not because the world needs a fourth Ghostbusters movie, but because if it's a commercial success, it might mean that we get to see more of these female stars in their own, original vehicles rather than ones we've already seen. And that will only be a good thing.