Winsome and appropriately jovial, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is a benign comedic enterprise forced into politics by the peanut gallery, flourishing through its disregard for the shackles of legacy and hegemony of polite society. Avoiding the sarcasm of the original in favor of a juvenile absurdity, it plays to the quirks of its cast and the expectations of the genre, sweeping the viewer into its spirited marriage of gag humor and computer-animated set piece. As the acrid taste of internet speculation vacates your short-term memory, you’ll find a warm-hearted adventure of considerable merit, bolstered by radiant visual effects and a surprising lack of comedic malice.
Bearing a striking similarity to internet crusades fought over the film’s supposed agenda, our all-female Ghostbusters team skirmishes with Rowan North (Neil Casey), a Reddit-era version of Travis Bickle, devoted to washing the streets clean in a rain of supernatural malignance. His coup de grace, entitled “The Fourth Cataclysm,” attempts to untether the boundaries between dimensions, freeing the malignant creatures that reside outside of our physical realm. Laying conjuring contraptions amidst the storied architecture of metropolitan New York City, Rowan’s harbingers of the apocalypse inspire awe in their emergence, summoning luminescent bolts of light that dance atop the art-deco buttresses and steely subway tracks of lower Manhattan.
Subtextually, it’s telling that our team of shamed scientists have written the book that inspired their adversary, since both parties endure the scorn and ridicule of authority in equal measure and clash despite this shared marginalization. Drs. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), co-authors of the pseudoscientific text, even sever their professional relationship due to academic backlash, a broken bond that the film nurtures back to health in lieu of an arbitrary erotic relationship.
The gender debate that prefaced the film’s release is only vaguely insinuated on the surface, hinted at by wardrobe choices (a “One of the Boys” t-shirt) and the casual misogyny of their arch-enemy, particularly when his spirit inhabits Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled husk. This lack of direct acknowledgement makes the product more empowering, providing women with a superhero vehicle that doesn’t subsist on sexual platitudes, but doesn’t ignore their individual femininity. These are multi-dimensional characters that are capable of being adept physicists, logical thinkers, witty pranksters and unapologetically female.
As for the performers that interpret these modern heroines, each takes a unique bent on a previously conceived role and fashions it to their taste. Kristen Wiig turns in a subdued rendition, playing straight woman to her ebullient co-stars, saving her strength for a vivid reminiscence of a childhood encounter that rivals the actual poltergeists. Kate McKinnon’s idiosyncratic version of Dr. Spengler manages the jargon-heavy syntax quite well, drolly quipping despite the occasionally infantile dialogue, sprucing up the material with a jokey glance when a recycled bit doesn’t sing (see The Exorcist-inspired possession sequence).
The striking computer-generated spectres collaborate well with the vivacious acting of the primary cast, incandescent and sparkling like firecrackers as they parade about Times Square. Director Paul Feig does an admirable job of wedging in all of the original film’s landmarks and properties (Slimer, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, etc.), often at the expense of his setpieces, which are cluttered with excess personnel and poorly blocked. His misuse of master cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman is the film’s only grave error, since the precision and symmetry of his previous work (Drugstore Cowboy, The Royal Tenenbaums) would have helped to tighten the sprawl of the climactic brawl.
That being said, the Ghostbusters series has never succeeded solely on technique, thriving instead on the fellowship between its investigative team and its willingness to laugh in the face of peril. The latest entry in the series produces two moments that perfectly embody these characteristics: McKinnon’s closing speech of dedication to her compatriots and the unification of the troop as they spray proton rays at the groin of their antagonist. The fact that the recipient has morphed into a colossal version of the proprietary ghost logo as he’s emasculated is a wink at the pious hordes that rallied against this revisionist success, proof that nothing is sacred and film is an artform in flux.
Ghostbusters (Columbia Pictures, 2016)
Directed by Paul Feig
Written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, adapted from the 1984 film written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Photographed by Robert D. Yeoman