Kindly allow this lengthy aside and conspiracy theorizing: I can’t start my review of Paul Feig’s redo of Ghostbusters without first mentioning the stupefying chaos that attended last Thursday evening’s press screening, the only one of two scheduled a half-hour apart in New York before the movie’s opening. This unprecedented incompetence had me convinced, for an hour or more, that Sony, the film’s distributor, had been so cowed by the gynephobic holy war that has been waged against the film on social media (including Donald Trump’s Twitter feed) for the past 18 months that the company simply did not want the movie to be seen, ever. (Would it be The Interview redux?)
After the Lord of the Flies–level mayhem of the press check-in, Ghostbusters, which was supposed to be shown in IMAX 3-D, began in 2-D … with the Windows logo glaringly visible in the bottom left of the screen and a running timer tracking each second in the bottom right. At around the 15-minute mark, the lights came up, and a Sony rep announced, “This isn’t the way we wanted you to see it,” and then told us the film would start over. As a consolation, there was mention of free popcorn, soda and candy in the lobby; as several spectators bolted for the snacks, it was clear that this sop would also be a further time-suck.
And so, 50 disorganized minutes after it was supposed to, Ghostbusters began in the proper format. What I watched for the next two hours was mostly a tragic underutilizing of four of this country’s funniest women — Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon as the evil-ectoplasm battlers of the title, fighting to save a New York that is played primarily by Boston — combined with what felt like the world’s longest laser-tag game. Feig, who directed Wiig and McCarthy in Bridesmaids (2011) and the latter in The Heat (2013) and Spy (2015), has done more than any other filmmaker to expose the idiocy of an industry that still insists that women cannot carry big-studio-financed comedies. But his Ghostbusters, which he co-wrote with Katie Dippold (the scripter of The Heat), is too risk-averse, despite its nominally radical gender-switching premise.
Ghostbusters 2.0 suffers from the anxiety of influence — or, more specifically, from the fear of not wanting to alienate the fans (Gen Xers and others) of 1.0. It never strays far from the anodyne, generic humor that pervades the Ivan Reitman–directed 1984 original, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who starred with Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson. All of the principal cast (except for Ramis, who died in 2014, and to whom the film is dedicated) pop up in cameos, as do three secondary actors (two made of flesh and bone, the other from sugar and gelatin) — cloying appearances that have become de rigueur in remakes but that here especially highlight the timidity of Feig’s project. The biggest of these small roles goes to Murray, whose smug self-regard in Reitman’s film continues in Ghostbusters 2016 in a bizarre bit of doubling: He plays an imperious debunker whose lavishly patterned three-piece suits and walking stick are meant to recall Feig’s own well-documented sartorial excess.
However awkward, that odd meta-moment is, sadly, one of the few signs of flamboyance, of a personal stamp, in the film. There is an easy camaraderie and chemistry among the central quartet, a harmony that continues when Chris Hemsworth, charmingly stupid, enters as the phantom-vanquishing squad’s receptionist. Yet the main performers rarely get to display their individual, idiosyncratic strengths. It’s particularly dispiriting to hear McCarthy, one of the most floridly gifted verbal riffers in comedy, have to utter frat-brah catchphrases such as “Let’s do this.”
That kind of lifeless, recycled language sounds even worse when Wiig, another performer who has perfected how to do things with words, cries out “Say hello to my little friend” before zapping a spook in the film’s near-interminable final act, a glut of green beams that suggests nothing more than an FX trade show. (Look how much technology has advanced since 1984!) Playing an expert in particle physics, the brilliant chameleon McKinnon, in her biggest screen role to date, isn’t given much to do besides wear steampunk-inspired getups and speak in weird intonations, though she does have a killer line very late in the film. Conversely, the best scenes featuring Jones, McKinnon’s SNL castmate, also in her first starring role, are her earliest ones: Her MTA-employee character often lapses into jittery self-talk, tangents that are made more hilarious by Jones’ amplified indignation — but that soon devolve into banalities.
It is only during Ghostbusters’ loopy, unpredictable and detail-dense final credits — the best such sequence I’ve seen in a film this year — that Feig’s rethink seems liberated from the burden of the past. As for the burdens of the present, it seems inevitable, and ridiculous, that his Ghostbusters will continue to be savaged on the spleen-soaked battlefields of the internet simply for existing. The film has assumed an outsize role as a referendum. Call it the Broxit.