If there was ever a movie this year that seemed destined to fail, it was Ghostbusters. Long before the reboot’s dissenters became an online horde, spewing vitriol and misogyny, the long and the short is that director Paul Feig was attempting to remake what is unequivocally considered to be one of the strongest comedies ever filmed.
No property or piece of art is so sacred that it’s above reinterpretation, though, as long as the execution is strong enough to support to new angle. (West Side Story, Gnomeo & Juliet, and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet are all far cries from what Shakespeare envisioned, but each still works due to that factor.)
The fact that four women would play the busting quartet was never going to be what killed a Ghostbusters remake — particularly when they were four incredibly funny women. The key would always be whether Feig could make the movie enough of his own creation. Mostly, he does. It’s only whenever the reboot feels forced to tip its hat in homage to the original that it loses its own voice.
The overall arc of the story remains the same, although the finer points of the characters are refreshingly different from Venkman, Ray, Egon, and Winston.
Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a teacher at Columbia University a month away from attaining tenure. When a man approaches her about a paranormal book she co-wrote years earlier with Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin realizes its listing on Amazon and Google will threaten her tenure, she tracks Abby down.
Abby has continued studying the paranormal, now at a technical institute with her assistant Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). The years of childhood friendship and bad blood between Erin and Abby surface, leading to Abby offering to take their book listing down only if Erin accompanies her and Jillian on a short-notice paranormal investigation.
The three encounter a ghost and excitedly decide to try and cultivate their experiments into a business. (It doesn’t hurt that Erin’s reaction video to witnessing the spectral encounter goes viral at Columbia, leading to her termination there.)
Another ghost is found by Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA worker who first goes to the ghostbusting trio as a customer but offers her services as an expert of New York City to help provide some real-world knowledge to their book smarts.
Unbeknownst at first to Erin, Abby, Holtzmann, and Patty is that the ghosts they’re catching aren’t random occurrences, but actually being summoned, in an attempt to bring about the apocalypse. And when the NYPD and Homeland Security are helpless to stop it, who are you gonna call?
Judged by its own merits, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is a really funny movie. The writing is sharp and current, with a brisk pace of jokes, both blatant and delayed ones that make you laugh five seconds later when you catch a buried punchline. (It’s also remarkably scary when it needs to be.)
Paul Feig puts his capable skills as an actor’s director to excellent use here, just as he did in Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. What’s refreshing to see, though, is his growth as a visual director. Watching Feig’s new eye for camera angles and atmosphere reminded me of the sharp visual improvement of Kevin Smith between his first three comedies and Dogma.
The four leads work very well together, forming a stronger unit than each is individually. Actually… That’s not quite true. Despite the strength of the four together, McKinnon is such a force to be reckoned with, she walks away with the entire movie. Reacting perfectly opposite to almost every situation she finds herself in and always ready with an out-of-left-field remark, her performance and depiction of Holtzmann is not only hysterical by today’s standards by stands above most from the original Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II.
Speaking of, though, what about that whole matter of the originals? Well, that’s actually what keeps the reboot from being all it could. Left to its own devices, the script and performances are actually strong enough (and different enough) to distract you from Ghostbusters following the same beats as the 1984 original.
Unfortunately, Feig’s version feels pressured to pay tribute wherever he can to whatever he can, which consistently kills any momentum the reboot builds. There are five full-scene cameos of actors from the original films, and only one of them serves the slightest purpose to the story.
The rest of the time, everything from a familiar musical cue to a shot of a firehouse to a cabbie played by Dan Aykroyd just serves to steal any sunshine the movie has a chance to get for itself, leaving it unable to grow to its full potential.
Ghostbusters winkingly leaves the door open for a sequel, should enough people be willing to give the reboot a chance. Considering all the new stuff in the new movie works so well, it will all come down to how much people care about the old stuff from the old movies (which, based on the notoriety this earned before its release, might just be too much).
Perhaps the best way to approach Feig’s Ghostbusters is to think of it less as a remake and more as a third entry in a disconnected trilogy. And like most trilogies, while the third one isn’t as good as the first, at least it’s still better than the second.