WASHINGTON, Aug. 5, 2016 — In late 2014, Paul Feig was announced as the director for the long-simmering reboot of the “Ghostbusters” franchise. Not long after, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones were hired to star as the new film’s leads, immediately leading to controversy.
A vocal group of original “Ghostbusters” devotees – almost entirely male – went ballistic, virtually minutes after the four female leads were announced. This huge and ongoing reaction against a relatively innocuous casting decision has dominated almost every aspect of the movie’s production since and continues to do so after its release.
Today it seems almost impossible to discuss the new “Ghostbusters” without acknowledging the heated voices of the film’s opponents even if their numbers are rather small, which says a lot about the current political and cultural landscape in this country. The fact that the new “Ghostbusters” is the hill upon which many opponents of women being prominently featured in film franchises have decided to die simply highlights how ridiculous their argument is at its core.
The good news is that the current film generally lives up to all the heightened attention, actually sharing a similar attitude with the beloved original while building on it thematically without rehashing too much of the same territory. It also exposes just how irrelevant and tedious it is to be furious at the existence of this new “Ghostbusters.”
One of the larger themes of the 1984 version of “Ghostbusters” is the question of authenticity. In the scientific community, scientific and scholarly legitimacy and credibility are key to any scientific researcher’s reputation. For this reason, anyone, including a scientist, who puts significant effort into researching the scientifically dubious paranormal realm is going to be suspect in the scientific community. The new “Ghostbusters” picks up on this as it introduces Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) in its opening moments.
Gilbert is up for tenure at Columbia University as a professor of physics. Her interactions with her departmental boss, though understated, illustrate the upward climb a woman still often has to face to get ahead in her field. This professor seems to move the goalposts on specific standards while also making casually dismissive remarks about Gilbert’s appearance. This sets up professional tension for Gilbert and serves as a prologue to the rest of the film.
Kristen Wiig has found a comfortable niche in Paul Feig films, previously starring in “Bridesmaids” as a tightly wound straight woman. This same persona is on full display in her opening scenes in her current film.
When Erin Gilbert’s tenure-endangering past comes back to haunt her in the form of a book she previously co-authored with childhood friend and fellow scientist Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), she promptly loses her academic job and is forced to move in with Abby and engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in cheap digs above a Chinese restaurant.
Both Erin’s new roommates have encountered issues as well, having lost their funding at a research institute, all of which eventually leads to the ghostly encounters we’re expecting.
Erin finds herself at the center of a world of craziness. Of the film’s four main characters, she is, ironically, the one most reluctant to dive into ghostbusting and becomes the most unhinged once she does.
Bugging her the most is that even from the start, she’s a respected member of her field, yet her professional credentials are always called into question. That phenomenon, however, is old hat to Abby, Holtzmann and Patty (Leslie Jones), who take it in stride. For that reason, Erin is the one who emotionally pushes back the hardest against injustice, a push that cuts to the heart of this new “Ghostbusters” where all four women fight for acceptance throughout.
Yet this is something the current characters share with the original “Ghostbusters”: They’re outsiders in a conventional world that is inclined to regard them as weirdos.
But instead of degenerating into a “snobs vs. slobs” narrative, the film becomes a narrative in which four intrepid women challenge a system that’s against them at every turn, whether it’s academics, government or good old-fashioned patriarchy that’s at fault. “Ghostbusters” mines the opposition not only for humor but also for the film’s anarchic social commentary.
On that note, it’s easy to overlook how many legitimately funny moments exist in this film, humor that’s largely generated by the great performers driving the situation, actors whose looseness allows them to be at their most appealing.
Unfortunately, this looseness is often counter-balanced by the film’s obvious flaws.
While there are interesting visual moments in this film, there are also times when Paul Feig’s haphazard directing style fails to capture the action appropriately. This creates a jarring feeling that undercuts the importance of a shot. This may be attributable to the fact this is the first time Feig has filmed action sequences that rely heavily on CGI or multiple points of action, a problem that extends to the film’s questionable editing.
That said, “Ghostbusters” still gives each character something to do, however, which leads to some pretty funny moments when generally useless assistant Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).
But in some ways, the whole notion of ghostbusting isn’t that important to the film, serving instead as window dressing for Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon and Jones, a thematic excuse for putting these four into crazy situations and allowing them to play off each other. For most audience members, ghosthunting is a ridiculous premise to start with. Believability, however, isn’t central to the film’s premise. More importantly, the fun in the film is in just how the primary characters fit into that ghostly premise.
What ultimately propels the current “Ghostbusters” is that, cultural critique aside, it’s trying to be entertaining, not “important.” In this it succeeds at being a fun movie while echoing and at times enhancing what the 1984 original film did and it doesn’t try to be anything else. It’s the type of (mostly) pure entertainment movie a significant portion of today’s audience wants to see, something that’s gaining cultural relevance because it’s obvious to all but a select few. Critics aside, political and otherwise, “Ghostbusters” 2016 wears that phenomenon on its metaphorical sleeve, laughing all the way.