“Ghostbusters” (2016)

Ghostbusters2

[Edited 8/9. This was a challenging review to write, and looking back, I think I had stronger feelings about some elements of the film than I initially let on. As a result I’ve revised this to more accurately reflect how I felt about those parts. I’ve also changed a few parts where I made claims which now I’m not certain I myself agree with. Some of my larger changes are indicated in square brackets and orange text for deletions, or just orange text for big additions. Smaller changes are made silently. One thing I should add in the film’s favor is that it made me think about how I think about these issues, which is important.]

Nostalgia, gender politics, and the Internet are a potent mix, but I like to think I successfully skirted most of that ugliness where Ghostbusters is concerned. A child of the ’80s, I of course had (and have) a soft spot for the original films and especially the animated The Real Ghostbusters, but I never considered myself a rabid fan. (Transformers, a franchise I was more invested in, helped teach me the dangers of being too attached to commercialized nuggets of childhood.) As a result I didn’t have an aneurism about the casting decisions or the simple fact of a Ghostbusters remake, though I certainly had thoughts about it, mostly negative.

[I had a bit here about how I expected the movie to fail, but in retrospect I’m not sure if I felt that way going in or if I was unwittingly projecting my post-viewing disappointment into the past. Either way, didn’t like it.]

The plot follows Dr. Erin Gilbert, a physicist up for tenure at Columbia who once wrote a book about ghosts with her estranged lab partner Abby. When Abby puts the book on Amazon (this is not how publishing works, by the way), Erin is upset because she’s recanted all her paranormal theorizing and worries that it will negatively impact her tenure review. Alas, she’s right, and after she and Abby and Abby’s new partner Holtzmann actually spot a ghost and capture it on film, her dean (or whoever) sees the video on YouTube and fires her. (This is also not how academia works… At least, not exactly.) So, just as Venkman, Stantz and Spengler got booted from Columbia, Erin is also, uh, booted from Columbia, and the ladies go into business for themselves, because this movie takes virtually every cue from the original film and adds nothing new except Chris Hemsworth. Oh, he’s their secretary. Whatever.

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It looks kind of cool, at least.

The rest of the movie is the new Ghostbusters proving themselves, developing new gear, and uncovering a plot by a hopeless nerd (nerds are bad, except when they’re good, in which case they’re the Ghostbusters) to unleash hell on New York City. In between busting the glowing purple-and-green specters, the ladies make jokes about Chris Hemsworth being pretty but stupid, complain about inadequate wantons, and that’s all I can think of even though usually these little lists feel more rounded-out when you have three things but this film doesn’t give me three things to work with, damn it. [I initially mentioned them flirting with each other, but I think that only happened once. It still felt kind of forced.]

It’s just that it’s not good, you see. The jokes are never funny. Jokes have to be clever and unexpected, and these are neither. Ghostbusters has always been about gags first, ghosts second, and marketing tie-ins third. Or maybe all of those at once. But this one is nothing but a marketing tie-in, without the redeeming factors of memorable one-liners or memorable ghosts. The first two ghosts we see are close analogues to the library ghost in Ghostbusters and the skinnier Scoleri brother in Ghostbusters II, because coming up with new ideas is for jerks. They shoehorned Stay-Puft in there, too, albeit in the form of a possessed parade float–but that makes no sense if you haven’t seen the original. This film has nothing but nostalgia, and it doesn’t handle that well.

Nearly as bad as the lack of comedy is the lack of Ghostbusters. This is not a sequel: it’s an entirely new, standalone story with no connection to the universe of the original films. There never was a Venkman or an Egon, no Gozer or Viggo, no Ecto-1 or Walter Peck. And yet everything here depends entirely on the audience’s familiarity with the original films, from the teeth-grinding cameos by the entire surviving cast of the original films (except Rick Moranis) to the pointless, universe-hopping appearance of Slimer (and his lady friend, because that’s gender equality?). Why distance the story from the original only to cram the most recognizable characters and symbols from the original into the new one anyway? (Because money, of course.)

I didn’t closely follow the outrage over this film that played out on the Internet, but you’d have to be totally unplugged not to catch that sexist trolls were upset about the all-femaleness of the main characters. I admit that I was put off by this decision, which seemed arbitrary. I dislike quid pro quo reactions to perceived inequalities: it was all men before, the logic seemed to go, so to be fair it has to be all women now. I’m not sure that that kind of reasoning is appropriate or genuinely progressive, frankly. It may have been better to work toward inclusion, rather than a simple reversal of the previous model.

But now that I’ve seen the film it’s striking that any “feminism” the all-female GB crew may have represented is reflected in a joke about queefing, in a scene where they shoot a giant ghost in its immaterial balls, and in constant, relentless, and simply unfunny jokes about Chris Hemsworth and how pretty and stupid he is. Just being zany and talking about genitals is not the same as offering critical social commentary (and it’s certainly not funny). I don’t know what the filmmakers’ intentions were on this level, but the simple decision to cast all women in the title roles means it says something, deliberately or not, about gender issues. (Of course every film says something about all kinds of social issues, but this film, given the furor surrounding it, had whatever it says infinitely amplified in the echoing halls of the Internet.) And whatever Ghostbusters says, it apparently does so at the cost of racial sensitivity, with the one central African American cast member being the stock-est of stock characters, actually crying “Preach!” in one scene and parodying Oprah in another because audiences can apparently only relate to black women if they speak like they’re in church or are Oprah. I’m not in a possession to be offended for a group of which I’m not a member, but it does seem significant to me that the film sparked such a fiery debate over gender and yet appears tone-deaf to the equally thorny issue of race.

Ultimately, the movie is just a total miss, and that’s especially disappointing because of how easy it would have been to make a silly, fun, festive piece of nonsense like the original Ghostbuster films. This entry tries, but ends up as a hot sparkly mess of awkward jokes involving shirtless photos of Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Wiig’s character getting ectoplasm in her vagina. (That’s an actual joke from the film, I hasten to add.) Sexual jokes are awesome and can be super funny, but they have to be funny. Just shouting out the names of various genitalia doesn’t qualify, because it’s not clever. It’s just words, and if genital-words were all I wanted I’d retire with a bottle of Malbec and my tablet and spend the evening reading Urban Dictionary entries, which at least sometimes have punchlines.

The new Ghostbusters has some cool ghost designs and CG that, while wildly overblown, at least sort of make sense in this context; but the pleasantly goofy visual aesthetic just doesn’t make up for the lazy, cynical money-grab the film so transparently is.

2scoops

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