I Ain't Afraid Of No Fanboys: Quirky Performances Enliven New 'Ghostbusters'
We are haunted by the original Ghostbusters, but it is a mostly benevolent haunting: a Class III apparition, at best. Indelible moments from the film have caused little disturbances in pop-culture's memory hole over the last 32 years — the rad Ray Parker Jr. theme music, the Marshmallow Man, the library chase that's become a part of the fabric of New York itself. The movie is the poster child for the rare Hollywood blockbuster that walks between two worlds: the world of stuff designed to make money, and the world of stuff that entertains. In other words, between the dead and the living.
Director Paul Feig and screenwriter Katie Dippold ( The Heat) know that the substantial challenge in front of the Ghostbusters reboot is the same challenge facing any reboot: to both feel like fresh entertainment and, conversely, conjure nostalgia for the ghost over its shoulder. So though they deviate from the first film in tone (there are few serious attempts to scare the audience, for instance), they acknowledge the spectral presence of Ivan Reitman's predecessor, with cameos and callbacks galore, including the same unflattering beige exterminator jumpsuits and a title card that blares the opening bass line of that theme music like a funky Batsignal. History is safe for another day, even if some ghastly figures on the Internet refuse to believe it. (Question for the class: If a transparent demon slimes a keyboard, is that the same thing as an opinion?)
Well anyway, as a wise woman says here, "You're not supposed to listen to what crazy people write in the middle of the night online." That woman is Melissa McCarthy, whose sharp-n-snappy paranormal investigator Abby Yates tips her hat to the audience early in the film so she can lay down the law. Enough vitriol. When Abby and her colleagues jump up and down with glee after nabbing particularly spooky baddies, they're telling us something: Bustin' makes them feel good.
Abby is one-quarter of the new, all-female spook exterminator team, along with longtime friend Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig); the two once co-authored a book on ghosts before Erin, unable to conjure up concrete evidence for her theories, retreated into academia instead. But Abby kept up the action, conducting experiments from the basement of a less-than-reputable university (the dean has forgotten she's there). When demons start shaking up New York, the two strap on some proton packs in a rented space above a Chinese restaurant for hijinks and a little too much scientific jargon.
Wiig and McCarthy have a natural give-and-take comic chemistry, as we first learned in Feig's Bridesmaids. While Wiig's patented brand of stammering out the punchlines under her breath isn't always the best fit for this material, and her character's obsession with the hunky, dim receptionist (Chris Hemsworth) lacks a big payoff, she shines when she's able to swing for the fences, as when she hysterically warns the mayor (Andy Garcia) to evacuate the city. McCarthy, as she's done before when she didn't have CGI monsters to compete with, corrals the room in every situation, whether picking fights with a delivery boy over the number of wantons in her soup or going rogue after a possession by an occult-obsessed loner (Neil Casey).
But the real star of Ghostbusters is one Kate McKinnon, her of the bountiful Saturday Night Live impressions, as an irreverent sidekick who presents dangerous gadgets in tossed-off fashion ("it's basically a nuclear bomb strapped to the roof of the car"). In her wily line delivery and cocksure swagger, McKinnon resembles nothing if not a young Bill Murray. Through her thick goggles is the impish spark that keeps movies like this in orbit.
As in the original, the busters are all played by veterans of improv — the cast is rounded out by the boisterous Leslie Jones, also of SNL, in the Ernie Hudson role as a transit worker who sees some spooks and signs up for action. Yet this cast feels more constrained by the machinations that power a 2016 blockbuster. So the new film never manages to be quite as transcendently fun as it should, and suffers from clunky plotting and bumpy editing that reeks of studio nervousness. Ideas that should play like Ghostbuster gangbusters, such as a demonic presence infiltrating a heavy metal convention, sputter in the homestretch. At one point Feig sets the stage for a show-stopping dance number, only to abandon it until the end credits without substituting any sort of iconic set-piece.
Still, sloppiness doesn't matter as much if the new Ghostbusters can haunt even a little, and it does. Sporadically, and with considerable assist from McKinnon, it provides the goofy summer fun we want in a movie about comedians hunting the supernatural. Bridging those worlds is tough. If a film succeeds even a little ... well, it's a bit spooky.
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