Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ghostbusters

2016, d. Paul Feig -- in theatre

Let's get this out first: I am a cis white male who was a pre-teen when the original Ghostbusters was released... and I didn't love this movie.
I wanted to, though.
Let's talk about it.

The online reaction to this "all-female" Ghostbusters has been unwarranted and utterly abhorrent, and the attention paid to those reactionaries, a focused group of "men's rights activists" (code for "raging misogynists" and equally likely to be flagrant racists), has been far too excessive.  The more attention paid, the more power they gain, as every news or media report on their campaign of hate only serves to give their voice some semblance of credibility. 

An "all-female" Ghostbusters may seem like a pointed assault against them, and in a way it is.  It is, in fact, a pointed campaign against the typically patriarchal, straight and white Hollywood system.  Change cannot be made without changes actually being made.  If it means casting four women as the leads of a remake of a beloved franchise where men traditionally held the lead, then that's what it takes.  Like Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens it sometimes takes wholly intentional shots at diversity and gender representation to stir up the audience, expose the bigotry and sexism that is buried in a shallow grave in our culture, and hopefully move on to acceptance.  Each of these steps is not in fact a step, but a bold leap.  The more big tentpole franchises feature women, LGBTQ, and minority leads, the more it will continue to happen, the more opportunity for people young and old to see someone like them and also not like them as a heroic figure or inspiration, and the more those who don't like it have the opportunity to accept it, or at least realize their campaigns are fruitless and perhaps not worth the effort.  For these loudmouth sexist bigots are the minority, and unlike skin colour or sexual preference, they can choose not to be that way and that ugly minority can actually disappear without any ill effect upon society.

So, as far as having an "all-female" Ghostbusters movie, I'm in favor of it, strongly without even a moment's hesitation.  Which isn't to say there wasn't any hesitation about a new Ghostbusters film generally, because reboots/remakes are always something to be wary of.  One of the areas where I had hesitation was in the casting.  Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are easily bankable and have an already tested and agreeable rapport from Bridesmaids, and with director Paul Feig so that was a slam dunk.  The hiring of current Saturday Night Live cast members Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnen were interesting choices, not because they're both not excellent comedic performers... they are, but with an asterisk.  Jones is notorious for stumbling over her lines on SNL, which is less of a concern when not in a live environment, plus she has film experience, so her hiring was an astute one.  McKinnen is the breakout performer of the current SNL cast but she doesn't have much experience outside of sketch, so putting her in as a major player of a major summer blockbuster was risky.  Jones acquits herself nicely as Patty, a character full of energy and curious mix of confidence and reluctance (she's very much the common sense in the film).  She's an amateur historian which comes into play appropriately throughout the film.  McKinnon's Holtzmann is a living cartoon, wildly mugging and gesticulating from her first moment on screen.  There are times where her performance feels too large or distracting for what's going on elsewhere on screen, but the character herself is a social oddball and a bit of a mad inventor, creating all manner of ridiculously dangerous contraptions for the team to bust ghosts with.  I liked the Holtzmann character but it felt like McKinnon needed time to settle the character into the film.  By the end, though, I was completely back on board.


Another area I had hesitation was in the film being a remake instead of a sequel.  The cast aren't playing female versions of the original Ghostbusters (so no "Rayanne Stanz", or "Petra Venkman"), and the plot wasn't going to be a redo of the original, but Feig felt that it was important that the women of the film are seen as creators and innovators of their technology and paranormal science rather than having it handed down to them.  I understand this intent, but I still feel like it was the wrong one, that there were any number of ways to handle giving the characters initiative and onus (perhaps starting the film where there's been no paranormal incidences in 30 years, with the Ghostbusters a kitschy or forgotten memory, characters can independently investigate and discover the paranormal, and allowing Holtzmann to improve upon the proton packs and build new contraptions doesn't diminish her accomplishments in the least).  Rather than having the film winking at a reality that doesn't exist (with nods to the previous iteration) it could actually acknowledge it as part of the same universe.  It's a slight change that would have allowed the majority of the script to remain the same and given fans a sense of inclusion, of carrying on, rather than starting again.

Being a sequel would have made for less comparisons to the original than being a remake.  As a sequel, a new Ghostbusters film would be compared not against the original, but against the franchise, and in comparison it is a far better film than Ghostbusters II.  But as a remake it's only compared against the original, and it falls quite short.  For starters, it feels like a film made for younger audiences, not older ones, where the original was targeted at the more mature, grown up fans of SCTV and SNL, fans of Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd.  McCarthy is notorious for her ad-lib takedowns and Wiig is an ace improviser but they feel somewhat neutered here, and at times the films editing seems to be less around a scene transition, instead jarringly cutting away from improvisation that either was inappropriate for the MPAA rating or ran on too long.  I bet there's a superb R-rated version out there that will never see the light of day.

The script serves the characters well, but the story itself, the bad guy's motivations and the denouement aren't quite so pleasing.  The film's ghost problem grows too big, and the film's Ghostbusters don't grow in skill and experience in parallel, leading to a situation that doesn't feel comfortably handled or adeptly resolve.  The fact is the film turns into a day-glo barrage of ghosts running rampant on New York City in the third act, the villain of the piece becomes a literal cartoon, and the rules of the universe don't feel sufficiently set-up for how it ends (nor really, even, how it begins)...again, something that could have been shorthanded by being a sequel instead of a remake.

What makes the original such a standout is part cast and part story.  The core cast of this remake I feel is as comedically capable and enjoyable to go toe to to with the originals, but the remake falters somewhat in its supporting cast.  While Chris Hemsworth's hipster meathead secretary carries some of the film's best jokes, and Andy Garcia's mayor is great, there's no comparable Rick Moranis, no analogue Sigourney Weaver, no bad guy besides the Bad Guy like William Atherton (they have The Wire's Michael K Williams and Veep's Matt Walsh but they're not even close to the seething weasel of Atherton's deputy mayor).  The bad guy of the picture, Rowan (Neil Casey), was a bullied kid who never got over being bullied and now is taking it out on the world.  He feels like a villain for the cartoon Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters and not so much the main bad guy of a major motion picture (like, if this were a sequel, it would have been amazing were Casey a fan of the original Ghostbusters, and hated this new crew and started exacerbating the new ghost problem rather than causing it outright, thus leading the sequel to deal with what caused the reemergence of the ghost problem in the first place, being both meta commentary and tie-back).  There's lots of great comedic talent in small roles, and quite a few good gags emerge, but I feel like this film should have been tremendously funnier than it was (far too many "that's gonna leave a mark" or "oh, hell no" moments which feel like sanitized reactions from the cast rather than natural comedic impulses).  As the story progresses, the focus becomes more on action and special effects than comedy and seems to leave less room for humour to be added.

What also felt diminished was the sense of discovery.  That may be the fact that I've lived with Ghostbusters for 30 years so I know some of the rhythms already, but this film doesn't quite walk you through the world where ghosts can exist and, simultaneously, where people who capture those ghosts figure out how to do so.  It feels at times like the solution is already there for them (wouldn't be a problem as a sequel, but as a remake it leaves the accomplishments feeling rather empty).  As well, there was a sense of mystery to the original (and even the sequel), a kind of deduction that Egon, Winston and crew needed to employ to understand how to defeat their enemy.  There's a little of that here as well, but it's not something the characters nor the film are too focused upon... they seem more interested in showing off Holtzmann's new (incredibly fun and dangerous) gadgets.

In the end, it's ultimately the cast that carries the film.  There's a palpable team dynamic, and they play genuinely likeable characters, to the point that I want to see another Ghostbusters that will hopefully provide a better story for them, and more comedy (I feel like the comedy of the original was more scripted, which meant editing was tighter too). 

While I came out of the film entertained, I was mildly disappointed that it wasn't as good as I felt it could have been, given the talent involved.  I think anyone going in ready to hate this film won't have their minds changed, but anyone looking to enjoy themselves or any new, younger viewer is going to have a great time.  In that respect it will probably work well as a remake.  Younger audiences are going to appreciate this greatly.  I can see pre-teen kids (boys and girls) watching this obsessively over and over, just as kids my age did with the original.  It's certainly of enough quality to support that kind of obsession (but older fans are going to probably stick with the original, at least until the next one comes out).