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Ghostbusters: With Friends Like These, Who Needs Ghosts?

Girl power in the age of the don’t-screw-it-up franchise reboot.


At the end of last year, film critic Eric Hynes, writing in Reverse Shot, opened his review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by declaring, “This is the era of do-not-fuck-it-up.” In an entertainment environment in which Hollywood franchises are being rebooted and remade on a regular basis, he explained, fans greet the arrival of major upcoming releases not with excitement but, rather, a general sense of dread that their makers will ruin beloved properties. “Ant-Man? It’s fine—at least Peyton Reed didn’t fuck it up. Batman v. Superman? Don’t fuck it up, Zack Snyder, like you did Watchmen.” As a result, Hynes explained insightfully, “Movies are made of proven entities to minimize risk, but that transfers the stakes from making something good to making something that meets the expectations for what it’s supposed to be.”

The Force Awakens was the perfect example to illustrate Hynes’ don’t-screw-it-up theory of careful cinematic brand maintenance—it’s a very entertaining movie, but one meant to stay in its lane, to meet expectations but not surpass them, lest you offend the faithful by attempting too much. Even then, Disney had to contend with spoiled-brat online commenters who took issue with the fact that, heaven forbid, there was going to be a black Stormtrooper or, lord have mercy, a woman would be the principal hero. But these nods to inclusiveness are the closest a filmmaker like J.J. Abrams can get to taking real chances in a modern tentpole—and, even then, it feels mildly risky, even subversive.

By that metric, director and cowriter Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is the gutsiest blockbuster in quite a while, which is an astounding thing to say considering how pleasant and silly this remake is. As you’ve no doubt heard, in the two years since this project was announced, plenty of invective has crisscrossed the internet, inspiring angry men (including a blowhard running for president) to complain that no one should redo that classic 1984 comedy with a bunch of ladies. In the don’t-screw-it-up age, Feig and his cast dared doing just that. This new Ghostbusters doesn’t entirely succeed, but its genial insistence that it has every right to be its own movie is downright triumphant. Even when you’re not loving this movie, you’re rooting for it—and how often do you say that about assembly-line blockbusters these days?

Uptight Erin (Kristen Wiig) and nerdy Abby (Melissa McCarthy) were once best friends who co-wrote a book trumpeting the existence of the paranormal, but now that Erin is a college professor seeking tenure at a stuffy university, she’s trying to erase any mention of the book off the web. But after Erin encounters a nasty specter, she seeks out Abby for the first time in years. Now teamed with a wacky gadget-head named Jillian (Kate McKinnon), Abby is preparing to begin hunting apparitions, a proposition that’s simply too exciting for Erin to turn down. They soon become a foursome, the group including the all-attitude Patty (Leslie Jones), whose copious knowledge of New York history mostly serves as a handy expositional guide to keep the plot moving along.

Rewatch the 1984 original and you’re struck by the fact that it’s largely a hangout comedy, introducing us to its main characters as they stumble from one misadventure to another—it only really becomes an action movie in its final third. (The film isn’t a continuation of director Ivan Reitman’s two ‘80s films; the new Ghostbusters pretends those earlier movies never happened—except in other, more ethereal ways, which we’ll discuss later.) Feig, who previously made Bridesmaids and Spy, sticks to that formula for his remake, letting his four leads’ interactions drive much of what happens. It’s a winning strategy: Although this Ghostbusters is sometimes undermined by flabby moments where it seems apparent that the actresses were left to adlib their way through an unfinished scene, the pure delight of being around these characters is entertaining enough to overcome the rough spots.

That’s especially true of Wiig and McCarthy, who reunite for the first time since Bridesmaids. That film has been a bit of an albatross for the actresses. For Wiig (who was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), she’s mostly avoided mainstream projects post-Bridesmaids, preferring to stretch herself with prickly indies like The Diary of a Teenage Girl (which was very good) and Hateship Loveship (which was not). As for McCarthy (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Bridesmaids showcased the powder-keg side of her comedic personality, which made her a movie star but also made me have to sit through garbage such as Identity Thief, in which she drove her pitbull-intense shtick into the ground.

But with Ghostbusters, they get to play very likeable, caricature-free characters, which is especially cheering with McCarthy, whose collaboration with Feig in last year’s Spy was the best thing either of them have done. There, she was sexy, smart and vulnerable—eschewing the tiresome big-jerk demeanor of Tammy and The Boss—and in Ghostbusters, she’s a charming, sensitive geek who never quite forgave Erin for breaking their bond. It’s indicative of this remake’s deeply mild daring that the story is really just about two friends who mend fences—that those friends happen to be women in a big, effects-driven spectacle is what makes it so relatively groundbreaking.

If the original Ghostbusters was filled with snarky stars—the culmination of the Animal House/Stripes/Saturday Night Live era of wise-ass big-screen comedy—this new movie is a gentler, loopier, more cheerful creation. The remake is as emblematic of our current comedic landscape as the ’84 movie was of its, combining the bighearted sweetness of Feig’s films with the sneaky weirdness of contemporary Saturday Night Live, which is less of a rabble-rousing instigator than it is a cozy but still funny institution. SNL’s female cast members have dominated for years now, and so it’s probably no coincidence that three of Ghostbusters’ four leads are or were on the show—and that McCarthy is a frequent host.

Like Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters has a kindness in its humor that’s incredibly appealing. (That extends to Chris Hemsworth as a boy-toy nincompoop who becomes the women’s secretary, mostly because Erin falls for his dumb-as-dirt hotness.) As a big fan of McKinnon and Jones on SNL, I’m less impressed with them in the movie than other critics are. (I find Jillian to be too rambunctiously “quirkily” conceived—she’s too much of an idea of a funny character rather than just being genuinely, organically funny.) But the room that Feig provides them to do their thing—especially Jones’s no-nonsense gruffness—is its own kind of reward, a big-screen expansion of already-enjoyable personas.

Ultimately, what hems in this Ghostbusters isn’t the fact that Feig dares to mess with the franchise, but rather that he doesn’t screw it up enough—instead he adheres to the rules such reboots require. Don’t worry, aging fans of the original: In the new movie you will get Slimer, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Bill Murray, Annie Potts, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, the Ghostbusters logo, the Ghostbusters firehouse, proton packs, ghost traps, the Ray Parker Jr. theme and, unless my eyes deceived me, a respectful nod to Harold Ramis in the background of one shot. As with The Force Awakens, this remake bends over backwards to provide ample fan-service, which Feig all but acknowledged recently when he said that he and cowriter Katie Dippold made a list of all the things from the ’80s films they wanted to be sure to include.

At its weakest, the new film becomes a dutiful checking-off of a cultural-reference to-do list. The irony of the 2016 Ghostbusters is that, for all the whiny “my childhood is ruined” memes floating around the web, Feig has worked hard to satisfy those closed-minded fans—often, to the detriment of his own film, which is never less spirited than when it’s propping up some stale cameo. (The callback I didn’t mention, however, is my favorite, so I’m not spoiling it.) Consequently, this Ghostbusters is half-liberated, half-constrained. This time, women get to be heroes, but they’re not held back by the patriarchy so much as they are by those brand-management expectations. Hollywood ain’t afraid of no ghost—but it is terrified of what will happen if its movies aren’t visited by the specter of past success.

Grade: B

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site