By David Poland email@example.com
Review-ish: Ghostbusters (2016, non-spoiler)
This is an unusual movie to review, at least for me. So apologies for the amount of self-reference.
I saw Ghostbusters (2016) one night in 3D and the next night in 2D.
The 3D experience, which was surprisingly engaging as a piece of artistic technology, showed every limitation of the narrative quite clearly. My central objection? Two central protagonists of the Mary Richards variety. That is to say, lovely and charming and sometimes funny, but not offering up big laughs themselves. And those two leads happen to be played by two of the best broad-comedy comedians of the current era. Both get a moment or two of schtick. Both are likable. But there is no sink crapping or brutal insult runs or high goofball coming from McCarthy and Wiig here.
If you think about the 1984 Ghostbusters, part of what worked so well is that all three of the central ‘busters had very specific character roles to play. Bill Murray was the clear lead as the who-gives-a-f*** Venkmann. There was a love story that drove the emotional layer and a strong, somewhat traditional actress to go with it. Aykroyd’d Ray Stantz was the unshakable true believer. Ramis’ Egon Spangler was the scientific cynic. (Ernie Hudson was the normal-person audience in the room, though not much of the film.)
None of those slots are filled in this Ghostbusters. McCarthy leans Stantz. Wiig leans Spangler. McKinnon is a new creation altogether, the mad techno-tist. And Jones is a bigger part of things than Hudson was, with more of an agenda.
So as I watched the 3D version – which is kind of brilliant in its use of a letterbox on the top and bottom of the screen that the movie leaks into at times – the visual experience was so rich and the talking scenes so pleasant, but not razor sharp, that the movie felt out of balance for me. I liked it, but I was also filling my mental list of flaws… as I do when I see a movie that doesn’t completely have me in its clutches.
What was also apparent from the first screening was that Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold and the cast of improv-trained actors were not trying to remake the 1984 movie. There were plenty of references and cameos. But they were on their own journey. This film is, I think, much scarier in terms of effects than the original. The pre-credits ghost reveal is much more intense than the little old lady in the library. There is a very ambitious bit about the ghosts recreating old Times Square. Much of the swagger element of the film is just not there, as any effort to slow the Ghostbusters has a very modern, self-aware twist. And the only real love story here is between the two lead characters, who are estranged friends at the beginning. But even that is subtle.
I immediately felt that if audiences gave it a chance, it would be a success, though not of the $700m worldwide variety.
The next night, I was scheduled to go back and see the 2D version with my 6-year-old. And honestly, had he decided not to go, I might have skipped it. And that would have been a really bad choice.
Seeing the film in 2D, the experience became a Paul Feig comedy and not so much of a visual spectacle. And that was good.
There was a web brouhaha about whether Ghostbusters is a sci-fi/horror genre film first and a comedy second or the other way around. Seeing the 2D version, I had no question about that issue. It is a comedy. And it is a very specific kind of comedy. I don’t know if I can really say that it has a female sensibility, but I am inclined to think that. Then again, it seems more Jacques Tati than Lucille Ball. Feig has a love of the small, complex physical bits and a willingness to use words to punctuate more than pronounce.
For me, the work of McCarthy and Wiig took on an element of the sublime watching them again. I still must admit that I wish they were a bit more specific in their roles. But the rhythm of the piece worked for me a lot more the second time around.
Unlike the male version, this Ghostbusters foursome is truly a foursome. I could have used a little more Groucho from McCarthy… a little more Stan Laurel from Wiig (or even a higher ceiling on her female gaze bit)…
But the showstopper is Kate McKinnon, who is clearly the Harpo of this film. She does speak. But her mind is ablaze in every single frame, to the point where you almost feel you can here the engine whizzing at top speed. She steals the movie, in no small part because her role – wild and unpredictable as it is – is so well defined. She is always 100% go as a character.
Likewise, Leslie Jones shows more range here than she has on SNL and her few other movie appearances. She seems – all 6′ 2″ of her – like a normal person with bouts of extremely strong personality. It’s hard to fully explain what I mean about this performance, but Ms. Jones presents larger than life… big woman, big voice, big personality. And yet, here, it is the first time I have seen her where I felt like I was seeing something more akin to who she must be when she turns it all off. She still brings that big personality. But I am always interested in range in rising actors and I was pleasantly surprised to see more than I expected.
And back to that center. I think part of my issue is that the two former friends don’t really seem angry at each other so much as steeped in their own issues and needs. So we as an audience are not terribly invested in their reunion or new bonding. The stakes are low.
And the stakes are low for the city. You don’t really feel like the end of the world is coming in this film. They do an elaborate montage of ghost troubles all over town, but somehow, the threat seems surface more than truly world-shaking. Plus, the villain is not good. I think Neil Casey is a funny performer. But he, like the teo leads, really demands a bigger character. Lots of ways you could have gone. Louis CK or Larry David would have been a sardonic choice. Patton Oswalt could have killed it. Michael Cera. Aubrey Plaza.
Also, there is not a lot of character transformation in this film. There is one scene where it feels like a character is making a big step up… and it’s not one of the two big stars.
But, all that said… I think most people will have a good time at this movie, assuming they allow themselves to watch the movie and not go in expecting a sequel. This is a very solid Paul Feig comedy.
And if you want to have a cool effects show, do go see the 3D, which although it was added on later, pushes the form in interesting directions. In fact, Feig says that there is an even bigger visual stunt that is only on the IMAX version. So maybe that is great fun too.
As Summer 2016 comedies go, I’d put it only behind The Nice Guys… which is a completely different experience on every level. Perhaps Ghostbusters won’t define your childhood. But I don’t think anyone on the team was after that. A good summer laugh at the movies? Absolutely.