The new Ghostbusters seems quite pleased with itself, but it leaves the overwhelming impression that nobody involved really believed in it. Despite the original film’s numerous flaws and Bill Murray’s sarcastic performance, it has a handmade charm to it, and it was a genuine labor of love for Dan Aykroyd. The cast and crew of the remake seem to have the attitude that somebody was going to make it, so it might as well be them, and they put in just the bare minimum to get the whole thing over with with as little fuss as possible.
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That we are living through a dark age of Hollywood remakes is, by this point, academic. However, while the film industry’s short-sighted tendency to produce such films without thought or care is disheartening, there’s nothing inherently wrong with remaking a film, even a good or popular one. There are, of course, good movies that are remakes of bad ones (such as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven), and filmmakers who have remade their own work (such as Yasujiro Ozu and Floating Weeds), but the most interesting remakes are often those that are based on good or popular films and made by a brand new group of filmmakers. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town, Joseph Losey’s M, and Brian De Palma’s Scarface may not be as timeless as the originals, but they’re all worthwhile films that use their source material to explore new aesthetic possibilities in meaningful ways.
The comedy and horror genres seem particularly suited to the treatment. Most jokes do not age well or translate across language barriers, and the same basic plot can feel completely different when you swap out the lead performers. Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage is as American as Édouard Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles is French, and Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor is as much a product of the 1990s as Jerry Lewis’ original was a product of the 1960s. Similarly, the public’s threshold for terror and gore is constantly being pushed, and some of the best horror films are remakes that do things the originals never could, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.
That’s why the 1984 hit supernatural comedy Ghostbusters was ripe for a remake, one that could push the concept further than the original film and its lackluster sequel did. The film is likable and fun, but, despite protests from the vocal Ghostbusters fan community and the film’s reputation as a bona fide comedy classic, it’s hardly an untouchable masterpiece.
The premise is that three scientists at Columbia University get fired because of their disreputable research into the paranormal, so, in order to make ends meet, they become blue collar exorcists, hiring themselves to catch and dispose of ghosts. It has always seemed to me that the richest source of humor in such a story would be that, in a world where we find out that the afterlife exists and that human souls can haunt the living after death, the living see the ghosts as little more than inconvenient vermin and pay exterminators to get rid of them. However, with a few exceptions, the “ghosts” in Ghostbusters appear to be demons from a parallel dimension, not the spirits of dead human beings, and the main plot involves an ancient Sumerian god opening a magic portal to another world. Instead of a solid satirical conceit that interwines with the material, the film’s modus operandi is to let all the fantastical nonsense unfold and then pepper it with wisecracks.
Most of these problems are attributable to the patchwork script, which is one of the most poorly structured of any major Hollywood hit film I can think of. Originally conceived by Dan Aykroyd as a high tech follow-up to The Blues Brothers, with himself and John Belushi in the lead roles, the film was overhauled with numerous rewrites to accommodate the budget constraints of Aykroyd’s complicated fictional universe, casting changes, and Belushi’s death. The result is a spaghetti platter of sub-plots, loose ends, pointless mythological esoterica, wild shifts in tone, extraneous characters, and jokes awkwardly stapled onto scenes where they don’t naturally fit.
At the center of this chaos is Bill Murray, who allegedly plays a psychologist named Peter Venkman, but he’s no more “in character” than Groucho Marx is as Rufus T. Firefly. In the absence of Belushi, Eddie Murphy, and John Candy, all high-energy comic performers who were originally cast in the film, Murray is burdened with keeping the whole film lively, but he clearly doesn’t care. He spends a lot of the movie just waiting for the other characters to pause while they deliver exposition so he can act like a wiseass, as if one of the hecklers from Mystery Science Theater 3000 was actually on-screen. Most of the film’s meager handful of truly funny jokes are his, but he also has quite a few groaners, and, even though he’s the lead character and is supposed to be an expert on the paranormal, he stomps all over the film’s believability whenever he opens his mouth. We do not see Peter Venkman, Parapsychologist, being funny in the midst of danger, but Bill Murray, Comedian, mocking the movie that he’s in.
Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) fare better as actual characters, but their roles are mostly limited to explaining the unnecessarily complicated lore and serving as Murray’s straight men. You could almost believe that Ghostbusters originated as a serious horror film about the paranormal investigation team of Spengler and Stantz, then was rewritten at the last minute to turn it into a vehicle for an up-and-coming comedy star who needed another hit under his belt before his agent could start studding him out. Despite the limited screen presence, though, Ramis is by far the funniest person in the film, disappearing completely into the nasally super-nerd and outclassing even Murray at deadpan humor.
Then there’s Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), a vestigial character left over from when the film was supposed to have Eddie Murphy in it. The character’s backstory is gutted, he doesn’t enter the film until the second act, and he never contributes to the group’s decisions that resolve conflicts, so, as far as the story is concerned, he almost doesn’t exist. He doesn’t even get any real jokes, since the film is too preoccupied with giving Bill Murray space for his lovable asshole schtick. His one punchy line at the film’s climax – yelling “I love this town!” after they defeat a giant monster in a harrowing battle – feels forced and out of character.
As strange as it may sound, Ghostbusters may have less in common with other comedies than it does with Casablanca, at least in terms of its place in the public consciousness. They are both essentially cult films, but ones whose cults are so large that they almost completely overlap with mainstream taste. Both are also serendipitous accidents that persevered through constant script changes and bad writing by sheer force of personality, and the obvious flaws of both are usually forgotten in the public discourse. They are not perceived holistically as beginning-to-end films, but as collections of memorable lines and moments to be savored and quoted out of context. Just as To Have and Have Not is a “better” film and a “better” vehicle for Humphrey Bogart’s talents than Casablanca, Stripes is a “better” Ivan Reitman comedy and a “better” vehicle for Bill Murray than Ghostbusters, but, while To Have and Have Not and Stripes were both hits, neither can touch the mysterious appeal of Casablanca and Ghostbusters. The key difference, though, is that Warner Bros. never produced the infamous sequel Brazzaville, leaving Casablanca to weather the tests of time on its own merits, while Ghostbusters was followed up not only by a sequel but also a Saturday morning cartoon show, two comic book series, several video games, a lines of toys, and its own flavor of Hi-C fruit drink.
Thus, as a film that is eminently popular despite being, in many ways, an artistic failure and a dud, it is neither surprising nor necessarily undesirable that Ghostbusters has been remade. What is surprising is that the result is so awful. Directed by Paul Feig, written by Feig and Katie Dippold, and starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, the new Ghostbusters is little more than a lazy, kid-friendly rehash of the filmmakers’ and performers’ previous work with a corporate sponsorship and a new paint job, but even that makes it sound more appealing than it actually is.
The film monkeys around with the plot a little bit, but it still tries to hit the same beats as the original. Erin Gilbert (Wiig) is a physicist at Columbia who once wrote a book about the paranormal with her childhood friend, Abby Yates (McCarthy), but has abandoned her work in ghost-hunting to pursue a career in academia. Abby herself operates out of a disreputable technical college with her new lab partner (McKinnon). In the original, all three of the main Ghostbusters get fired at once, but the new film breaks new ground by having two scenes where they get fired (seemingly mid-semester), after which they open up shop as paranormal investigators above a Chinese restaurant. Eventually, a blue collar subway worker (Jones) teams up with them and they start burning through most of the iconic scenes from the original: catching their first ghost in a hotel, government officials trying to shut them down at the mayor’s office, the protagonist’s love interest getting possessed by a malevolent spirit, ghosts causing mayhem with hot dog stands and taxi cabs, fighting a giant silly ghost-monster, etc. The film doesn’t even bother setting some of them up: they open up their ghostbusting business without saying why or how they’re doing it, and the implicit explanation is that they’re doing it because this is a Ghostbusters movie. They’ve removed the romantic sub-plot and the confusing nonsense about ancient gods, but the film doesn’t know what to do with itself when it’s not walking in the original’s footsteps. By the end, it degenerates into a third-rate action film with ugly special effects and a corny message about the power of friendship.
The new Ghostbusters is part of the epidemic of modern comedies that substitute long-winded sequences of lightly edited improv comedy for actual scripted scenes and structured jokes, a practice that has become the industry standard now that Hollywood comedy is dominated by this new crop of television alumni who cut their teeth on sketch shows and single-camera sitcoms (a group that includes Feig, Wiig, Tina Fey, Adam McKay, Judd Apatow, and practically all their regular collaborators). In such films, only the bare bones of the film is actually scripted, and the actors are simply told to get in front of the camera and make the scene funny by riffing off each other. Though the results can sometimes be funny, the films themselves are some of the most visually bland being produced by major studios, with nearly every scene consisting of several actors standing still and talking to each other in static medium close-ups cut together with standard continuity editing.
These tactics are especially egregious in Ghostbusters because, unlike tongue-in-cheek genre spoofs like Spy and The Heat (both starring McCarthy) or generic marriage farces made in this style, you’re actually supposed to take the high-concept story somewhat seriously, and these scenes of PG-13 improv comedy are a chore to sit through. The film comes to a screeching halt every five minutes so one or two of the actors can do some schtick – and it is the actors, not the characters, because it often has no connection to anything they’ve done in the rest of the film and usually feels at odds with the context of the scene.
Bill Murray, like the people who make these kinds of films, was a veteran of improv and TV, but, while his ad-libbing ruins a lot of scenes in the original Ghostbusters, it at least feels like a natural by-product of the drug-addled anarchy of 1970s sketch humor, when Saturday Night Live still had the energy of a punk rock garage band and actually challenged the status quo of mainstream comedy. Now Saturday Night Live is as much a whitebread broadcasting institution as 60 Minutes, functioning mainly as a finishing school for comedians trying to break into Hollywood, and undisciplined improv and sketch writing is the status quo. What once brought a zany, anything-can-happen energy to film comedy has bloated into something lazy, listless, and dull.
Unfortunately, the improv scenes are clearly Feig’s comfort zone as a director, and the film loses what little footing it has whenever it has to figure out how to show the actual ghostbusting. Because there is no clear way to film a fast-paced action scene so that the actors can comfortably improvise, that’s when the weakness of the actual script pushes past the talent of performers. During the film’s climactic battle against an army of spirits, for instance, Wiig pulls out some kind of laser gun to shoot a ghost and says “Say hello to my little friend,” a joke that I would conservatively estimate to have been in at least two hundred other films and television shows. A couple other stinkers include Jones screaming “The power of pain compels you!” after slapping a ghost-possessed McCarthy in the face, McCarthy nearly blowing herself up with an experimental weapon and saying “That … was awesome!”, and a tedious running gag about wonton soup that doesn’t have enough wontons in it.
All of this might be tolerable if the characters were likable, but they’re all irritating two-dimensional stock characters, and, even though Sony Pictures tried to sell this film as some kind of feminist manifesto, the writing is mired in negative gender stereotypes. Erin, the unofficial leader of the group, is the nerd, but not the kind of nerd who actually uses her intelligence and education to solve problems, just the kind who has no self-confidence and wears out-of-date clothes, a middle-aged Ivy League professor with a PhD in physics who gets so awkward around handsome young men that you’d think she was originally supposed to be a teenage virgin. Patty (Jones) is the street-smart black woman whose main job is to help out the others and to occasionally announce that she’s totally ignorant about what’s going on. Abby is the loudmouth who gets crabby when she’s hungry and is constantly complaining about her food being late – because she’s fat, you see (though McCarthy isn’t as heavy as the movie acts like she is).
The movie’s idea of turning the tables on a male-dominated film industry is to have every man on screen act like an incompetent boob or a humorless prick, but they’re so poorly written that it doesn’t even work as a gag. The villain, for instance, is a quiet loner (Neil Casey) who is so fed up with everyone making fun of him that he tries to unleash an army of ghosts to destroy the city. Someone obsessed with ghosts who’s been bullied all his life seems like the kind of character a Ghostbusters film might sympathize with, but you’re meant to laugh when other people casually refer to him as “freak” and “weirdo,” and, in case you might accidentally identify with him, his personality completely changes halfway through the movie when he dies and comes back as a ghost himself, at which point he starts acting like a sadistic imp and taunts the women with misogynistic comments.
There’s also Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a buff young stud the Ghostbusters hire as their receptionist. Kevin’s entire purpose in the film is to act stupid, but he’s too stupid: he covers his eyes when there is a loud noise and tries to reach through solid glass to grab a telephone someone had put in a fish aquarium. It would border on bad taste and feel like a parody of mental disability if you could take Hemsworth seriously in the role, but you never see him as a character. He’s always just Chris Hemsworth goofing around, and he’s wildly inconsistent, throwing out a bunch of pointless ad-libbed mannerisms and bad slapstick. Whenever he’s on screen, it feels like one of those sketches on Saturday Night Live where the hot young movie star hosting the episode tries to show his comedy chops by playing a doofus.
The film seems to think this is a real jab at sexist stereotypes, but the brainless hunk has been a tried-and-true stock character for at least forty years (Kelso on That 70s Show, Chris in Steve Martin’s Roxanne, most of the male characters in Zoolander and Earth Girls Are Easy, and Cowboy in The Boys in the Band, to name a few). What’s worse is the running gag about Erin having a crush on him: she’s his boss, ten years older than he is, and far more intelligent, but she gets weak in the knees and acts like a dope whenever he’s around simply because he’s handsome. Flip the sexes around so a forty-year-old man was fawning over a ridiculously simple-minded younger woman and you’d have a creepier sexual dynamic than the original, where Bill Murray uses bogus electroshock experiments to pick up college students and briefly considers having sex with a woman who’s possessed by a demon.
The most disappointing performance in the film, though, is Kate McKinnon, whose work I’ve enjoyed ever since she was on The Big Gay Sketch Show. Her character, Jillian Holtzmann, is the designated wacky character, the one who has to do something crazy whenever the director couldn’t figure out how to make the scene funny. She looks and acts like the host of an educational children’s show about science, and her overly eccentric costume looks like it was specifically designed by a group of marketing executives to appeal to cosplayers. Kristen Wiig is the film’s protagonist, but Kate McKinnon is its Bill Murray, shamelessly mugging and chewing the scenery without taking the character seriously. You half expect her to shrug her eyebrows at the camera and start wiggling a cigar.
The new Ghostbusters seems quite pleased with itself, but it leaves the overwhelming impression that nobody involved really believed in it. Despite the original film’s numerous flaws and Bill Murray’s sarcastic performance, it has a handmade charm to it, and it was a genuine labor of love for Dan Aykroyd. The cast and crew of the remake seem to have the attitude that somebody was going to make it, so it might as well be them, and they put in just the bare minimum to get the whole thing over with with as little fuss as possible. The writers don’t try to explore new comic possibilities with the supernatural themes, the studio clogs the screen with product placement, and the actors feel like they’re just going through the motions (Wiig, in particular, seems embarrassed to say her lines half the time). The ghosts and props don’t even look good: the special effects in the original were genuinely spooky and the ghostbusting equipment looked like something a scientist might actually build in his garage, but now everything is covered with garish glowing lights that make it look like a children’s TV show, and the computer-generated ghosts are all floppy, obnoxious cartoon characters.
The new Ghostbusters puts up a half-hearted pretense that it wants you to forget the original and consider it on its own merits, but it makes it impossible for you to do so because it constantly reminds you of it with awkward cameos, metatextual jokes, fetishistic use of the Ghostbusters logo, and an uninspired cover version of the theme song. It treats the original the same way the movie Pixels treats old arcade video games, using it as nothing more than a source of market visibility it can slap onto a rushed-out generic comedy for quick cash and merchandising. The original Ghostbusters may be an overrated film, and it had its own cynical merchandising exploits after the fact, but at least it was initially made because the filmmakers thought it was a fun and imaginative idea, not because a multinational conglomerate had hired them to disguise a feature-length commercial for toys and Pringles.
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Images are stills (c) Sony Pictures or screenshots taken from various trailers freely available on YouTube.