Makes Me Feel Good

It says something — something I am dead certain is not good — about our culture that the preeminent political statement of the moment is where you stand on the Ghostbusters remake.  As I write this, Paul Feig’s all-female reboot of the beloved franchise has only just had its wide opening, and already there’s a backlash to the backlash.

It’s curious that it would come to this; Ghostbusters — which, I should make clear at the outset, is a movie I like a great deal while not really loving — is one of the most universally beloved properties in modern film.  There’s been so much talk for so long about a remake, reboot, reinterpretation, or just a flat-out third sequel that you’d think the nerds who think it forms the very foundation of their childhoods would be happy to get behind any movement on the project just to see it happen. Unfortunately, when Paul Feig got hold of the reins after a far-too-boring-to-recap series of studio maneuverings, he announced that he’d be replacing the men of the team with women, and this, all too predictably, set off a furor of the strength and intensity that only a truly inconsequential subject could inspire.

The sexist ravings of shuttered geeks was typical in its focus, but a bit staggering in its scope; so passionate did their ravings against their childhood heroes being transmogrified by Commissar Feig into unrepentant breast-havers that the internet’s load-bearing members — IMDB message boards and YouTube comments sections — began to groan under the strain.  When the trailers were released, they were met with the kind of savagery normally reserved for child murderers, and this week, crowd-weighted review sites were hit with a coordinated attack worthy of D-Day with the aim of condemning it to the ranks of the worst movies ever made for the crime of letting yucky girls be in it.  The counterweight was more polite, but often just as misguided; a ‘movement’, entirely understandable in this day and age of consumer spending as political statement, was launched to get women to buy as much Ghostbusters merch as possible (that’ll show ’em!), and now that the movie has actually screened for critics, the ‘Ghostbusters is too feminist’ hot-take is being fiercely disputed by the ‘Ghostbusters isn’t feminist enough’ hot-take.

Meanwhile, for those of us who neither expect nor demand strong ideological messaging from our big-budget FX comedies about funny-looking people who catch ghosts, nothing remains but to actually go see the movie and judge it on its own merits.  And…well, it’s pretty good!  It’s exactly what it tries to be and nothing more:  a big, showy sci-fi comedy, led competently by a quartet of comedians at the top of their games and assisted by a capable supporting cast, that delivers good jokes early and often.  It can’t avoid the long shadow of its predecessor, but it never lets it entirely take over the screen; with one exception, the cameos by the 1984 film’s stars are well-executed and fun.  (Dan Aykroyd’s corny bit isn’t great, but he gets an executive producer credit and probably insisted on it.)  It doesn’t avoid poking fun at the hostile real-world reaction of internet cranks, but it wisely leaves that for a couple of well-timed jokes rather than letting it turn into a burdensome meta-commentary.

It mostly sticks to the tone and the structure of the original; Feig is skillful at figuring out exactly where the comedic beats should come from, and I got big laughs quicker in the new Ghostbusters than in the original, thanks to the welcome presence of Zach Woods.  There are a few places where it strays into becoming its own thing, and for the most part, it works; for one thing, it’s a very good-looking film, with the ghosts excellently realized and some moments of genuine suspense.  (There’s never really a sense of stakes, insofar as you know no one’s going to die, and it breezily laughs off the sense of threat the same way the original did, but at least here, there’s a bit of palpable menace for seasoning.)  They also stick to fairly broad comic archetypes for the lead characters, but they don’t waste our time trying to fit the new stars into the same slots as the old ones; each is allowed to develop her own persona, and this is generally a big success, especially with the brilliant Kate McKinnon’s unhinged engineer Jillian Holtzmann.

Casting the ubiquitous Neil Casey as the film’s supervillain rather than having the foes be a collection of broadly drawn monsters is a bit risky, but the script handles it ably enough.  The casting of Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ gleefully incompetent but stunning secretary, is a big gamble; Hemsworth is given so many terrific moments, and is so joyful and uninhibited at pulling them off, that he threatens to steal the show even from seasoned comic pros like McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones. But Feig and writer Katie Dippold are smart enough to use Hemsworth just so much and no more, ensuring that he’s the movie’s comedic secret weapon and not a distraction.

Having watched both of them in close sequence, what’s amazing about the new and old Ghostbusters isn’t how different they are at all; it’s how similar they are.  They’re both successful examples of the big effects-driven summer comedy; they both rest on good performances, unexpected bits of business, and the lived-in relationships of the leads; and they both sort of fall apart at the end when they turn into big visual explosions.  If the former has a strength, it’s that the ending is stronger thanks to a good visual style and improved computer effects, while the latter had a bit more faith in the ability of its leads to improvise around one another.  But they’re so alike in conception and execution — and in a good way — it’s hard to imagine why anyone would get so vitriolic about the idea that they’d be different.  They both do just what you want them to do:  show funny people catching ghosts.  That’s all the politics you need.

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