If you’ve read any of my coverage of the clips, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and general marketing for Paul Feig‘s Ghostbusters, you’ll know that my patience for the legions of people who have dismissed the movie on principle is non-existent. The reasoning behind these principles is admittedly bifurcated – at least on the surface of things. Some say it’s just plain wrong to remake such a holy text as the classic original, despite the fact that we’ve been remaking good and great movies for well over six decades at this point. Others – pathetic and endlessly self-justifying others – have a particular bone to pick with the fact that the new team of proton-pack sporting heroes are women. No matter the root of the frankly ridiculous harangues against this remake, it’s pretty clear that Feig’s film, in concept alone, has hit a nerve that few comedies in the history of this form have mustered.
The question – from my perspective, anyway – is pretty obvious: when did the original Ghostbusters become the cinematic equivalent of the holy bible? I grew up with the film like many of these “real fans” have and continue to adore the movie to this day. I’m not sure if more than six months go by without me watching the original film, if we’re being perfectly honest. Still, it’s not like Ghostbusters is some great, reflective story that resonates with all of us emotionally. It’s not some lost gem from the vaults of Ernst Lubitsch or even salad days Cameron Crowe. My love for the movie comes from the robust comic chemistry between the leads and the imaginative bouts of supernatural nonsense than the script and director Ivan Reitman conjure so consistently. I have a hard time imagining I’m the only one with this outlook, or that I’m even in the minority. Maybe I’m wrong on that count.
Perhaps my greatest frustration about all of this commotion about Feig’s Ghostbusters is that, to me, Ghostbusters 2 has already shown us the depths of how bad a straight remake of Ghostbusters could be with the very same creative team backing it. In 1989, five years after Reitman’s 1984 original, the long-awaited, worked-over sequel hit theaters, unseating an even worse sequel, Star Trek: The Final Frontier, and going on to be the seventh most profitable film of the year, just behind Back to the Future 2. Reitman directed, and much of the same cast returned to work on a script that was, once again, penned by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd. This is, from what I understand, the ideal conditions under which most purists would have allowed for a third Ghostbusters movie, whether it come in the form of a sequel or a far less palatable remake.
And yet, from a storytelling point of view, the film makes exactly no sense, even for a movie involving a plethora of real-deal ghosts, as well as advanced technology that allows us to capture and/or destroy ghosts with what amounts to lasers and a big hunk of nonsense called a “containment unit.” Fittingly, the film opens fives years after the original, with Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) first encountering the infamous pink, hate-fueled slime with her toddler son Oscar. In the time since the first film, Barrett has gone through quite a lot: she apparently had a lasting romance with Venkman that ended when he couldn’t fully commit, picked up another romance that grew into a marriage, got pregnant and gave birth, only to then have her husband leaver her for a secretary. She also, inexplicably, lost all interest in being a professional cellist and quit a dream orchestra job, before starting and completing at least a masters program (more likely a doctorate) in art restoration that must have led to being immediately employed by the biggest museum in New York, the fictional Manhattan Museum of Art.
And that’s, frankly, one of the more ignorable impossibilities and unlikely story details that the sequel’s script trades in to falsely replicate the narrative trajectory of the first film. After inarguably saving New York City and the world, the team have become second-rate celebrities, fielding birthday-party appearances and gigs running late-night television programming that even Syfy would likely turn away; Egon is running vaguely disturbing experiments on children’s moods. This is an attempt to recalibrate and redeploy the characters as lovable losers in desperate need of redemption once again, even after their ultimate triumph. The script utilizes a tremendously unconvincing catch-all – that the Ghostbusters were somehow shown to be charlatans capable of conjuring illusions of ghosts, while also causing untold death and municipal destruction when the Marshmallow Man attacked the streets of New York. The society at large, both nationally and internationally, believed this fiction, and also seemingly made peace with the fact that none of the perpetrators of this fatal attack ever saw a day in federal prison.
Here’s the kicker to all of this: the story really doesn’t matter. Comedies are notorious for leaning on ludicrous, convenient plot turns and huge, gaping holes in logic to get them from early anxieties and tragedies to a happy resolution. Supernatural comedies not only lean on these lapses in reality, they often celebrate them enthusiastically. And enthusiasm is the clear lacking ingredient to this whole mess. Ramis, Aykroyd, Reitman, and Bill Murray had to be pestered for months upon months to sign on for this movie, and the hesitancy shows in the overall lazy tone of the humor and the plodding nature of the story. The film is overrun with story and exposition that stalls out the more wandering, improvisational vibe that generated the original film’s biggest laughs and most memorable scenes. Where Ghostbusters relied on something so simple and unique as the way Ernie Hudson’s Winston says “Tell him about the Twinkie,” Ghostbusters 2 few memorable laughs are pointed jokes that are usually tied to moving the convoluted plot along.
This is not to say that there aren’t gags that land. Rick Moranis and Annie Potts are sensationally funny in their scenes together, and Murray’s deadpan delivery, as always, yields guffaws even when the actor isn’t completely enthused by the material. Unfortunately, the extra time spent on Potts and Moranis’ characters, and Murray’s Venkman playing hubby and stepdad to the family Barrett, seems to equate to less time and consideration for Egon, Stantz, and, most noticeably, Winston, a subject that Hudson has opened up about over the years. Rather than reinforce the care for one’s colleagues and friends in specialized fields of science, psychology, and technology, like paranormal or behavioral research, that reverberated palpably at the end of Ghostbusters, when Venkman tells Stantz that he’ll see him on the other side, the film seems primarily interested in how Venkman would fair as a stepfather and improving the ubiquitous pickled mood of NYC.
The whole mishigas just feels so damn forced, even if the film scans as entirely inoffensive and amusing in the most basic of ways. That’s thanks solely to the cast, who would go on to do far more fascinating and entertaining work following this, but even the unwavering admiration and nostalgic warmth I have for these performers can’t override the flimsiness of the overall production, which is reinforced by its focus on special effects. Some of the ghoulish bombast works, like the minks coming back to life in a rich woman’s coat, or Peter MacNicol’s galvanic performance as Janosz, Barrett’s boss at the museum who becomes a possessed conduit for the demonic spirit of Vigo the Carpathian, an evil so-and-so from Moldavia who is also manifested by the pink slime. Most of it, however, just adds a little glitter to the dull proceedings, and that includes the return of Slimer, who had become a sensation since the first film, thanks to The Real Ghostbusters cartoon.
It’s really no wonder that most fans of the original did not warm to the idea of the third film and why the people behind the film refused to return for nearly three decades now. Still, that would mean that the glut of negative responses should have been to the announcement that the remake had been green lit, and the rest of this should have been just the routine grumbling about bad casting, unfit directors and writers, and less-than-appealing marketing. And yet in this case, the naysayers and hardened nostalgists, who should know better following Ghostbusters 2, waited until it was decided that women would take the role to make the initial wave of complaints loudly known. Others held out until the release of the first trailer to stage their defiant YouTube pledges, Facebook posts, and unending torrents of tweets ensuring that they would never watch the completed film because they saw nothing substantive in a 90-second super-cut of scenes and gags that, for all they know, might not have even made it into the film’s final cut.
The uproar about Feig’s Ghostbusters is nothing more than the continued hemming and hawing of those who either fear or are angered by change. Would that Sony had been able to bring back the surviving cast members, directors and writers, as we might have had another sentimental, innocuous mediocrity to celebrate rather than a genuine attempt to create something new that might very well honor the inventive spirit of the classic original.