When it was first announced in late 2014, Paul Feig’s female-fronted Ghostbusters instantly became more than just Hollywood’s latest reclamation project. It turned into a cultural litmus test — a high-voltage third rail that brought out some of the uglier elements of the social-media sphere. While some pounded their thumbs raw tweeting about how sacrilegious it was to mess with a beloved touchstone of their youths (get over it), others spewed mouth-breathing, misogynist bile about the fact that the male cast would now be played by… gasp… women (get a life). Either way, after a year and a half of noxious hot air, Feig’s comedy is finally here and it’s time to ask the only question that should’ve been posed in the first place: Is the new Ghostbusters funny? The answer is: Kind of, but not nearly to the degree it should be considering the talent involved.
What made the original Ghostbusters an instant classic in the summer of 1984 was not only the anarchic, loosey-goosey chemistry between Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson, but also its unique combination of high-IQ smarts and low-brow silliness served with a straight face (“Tell him about the Twinkie…”). It was a big, special-effects blockbuster with the tossed-off hilarity of a killer improv set. With Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and SNL cast members Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones now wearing the proton packs, the new Ghostbusters gets the chemistry part right, but the laughs don’t pile up as high as you’d expect. Which is strange, because if anyone seemed right for the gig, it’s Feig — a director who’s carved out a sorely needed niche by showcasing hilarious women and really letting them soar in box-office hits like Bridesmaids and Spy.
So why does Ghostbusters feel so restrained? For starters, it’s too slavish when it nods to the original (although its throw-back cameos are fun), and too flailing and flat when it strays from it (Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold introduce a ghost-unleashing villain, then don’t know what to do with him). Even the spectral f/x are oddly shlocky (seeing it in 3-D is pointless aside from one comin’-at-ya slime gag). McCarthy, of course, gets off some lunatic one-liners; McKinnon, the group’s loose cannon, can crack you up just by widening her wildcard eyes; Jones mixes her signature bluster with an air of gung-ho joy; and Wiig’s timing is as Swiss-precise as ever (that is, when she’s not being saddled as the film’s straight-woman). Even Chris Hemsworth, as the Ghostbusters’ dim, beefcake receptionist, is funny — for a while. But with a cast as daring and quick as this one, Ghostbusters is too mild and plays it too safe. Somewhere, I bet, there’s an R-rated director’s cut of the movie where these women really let it rip. I want to see that movie. C+