In the build-up toward the release of the reboot of 1984’s Ghostbusters, much has been made about the decision to go with an all-female cast. That buzz reached fever pitch once Paul Feig became the director. Known for his breakaway hit Bridesmaids, which deftly showcased the comedic charms and dramatic potential of Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne and the Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy, he seemed to be the perfect choice. And his continued collaborations with McCarthy (The Heat and Spy) have been among her better projects during her post-Bridesmaids stretch run.
But in the pre-release phase, the reboot ran into a branding/marketing dilemma that haunts all such projects — nostalgia for the original. How could anyone ever dare to replace the sheer lunatic genius of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson?
In a recent article detailing distributor Sony Pictures’ concerns, the entertainment-industry publication Variety cited the tension between the early blogosphere praise — especially the casting of McCarthy, Wiig and Saturday Night Live players Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones — and the alarm over hardcore male fans of the original “griping about women taking over.”
Viral bile has smeared Twitter in the lead-up to the film’s opening. Film critic and entertainment journalist Todd Gilchrist reported the following question as being asked of Feig: “You’ve directed both men and women. Are women more difficult to make funny?”
So, let’s get to the nitty gritty. Does Feig’s Ghostbusters put all the naysayers in their place by addressing the notion that women can, in fact, be funny? As with most critical discussions, complexity prevents me from delivering a definitive answer.
Feig penned the screenplay with Katie Dippold, who scripted The Heat, and it is plain to see that they adored everything about the original because they have crafted a devoted homage to it. That is not to say that they have presented audiences with the kind of shot-for-shot recreation Gus Van Sant did with his “version” of Psycho, but like most reboots of the day, this Ghostbusters could be labeled a thoroughly modern update.
And as such, it would have been far more intriguing if Feig and Dippold had directly addressed the topicality of their ghostbusters facing a world where they are being dismissed not simply for their research into the paranormal realm but also because they are women. A gag or two that hint at casual sexism drift into the mix, but they are Casper-like sightings, lost in the behemoth of the broader jokes and torrential downpour of special effects raining all over the screen in the finale.
Where the film succeeds, though, is with its talented cast. Wiig and McCarthy — as Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, the primary dynamic duo of paranormal science — solidly anchor the narrative. Feig provides a degree of comfort for them to settle into an ongoing banter that, while sometimes hilarious, also allows for characters to show some heart. Their work here doesn’t break new ground for either performer, but it offers recognizable humanity that, at least for me, was missing in the breezy comic interplay of the original.
The real star is McKinnon as engineering genius Jillian Holtzmann, the tech specialist who develops all of the gear used by the team. From the first moment she appears onscreen, McKinnon becomes the definitive scene-stealer, inhabiting both the character and each frame of film she’s in as if the movie was always supposed to be hers. She portrays a pansexual imp, the Mxyzptlk (to reference a Superman character) in this world of ghost-fighting superwomen. Truth be told, McKinnon is this universe’s hybrid of Marvel Comics’ Tony Stark (the quip-happy tech savant of Iron Man) and Star-Lord (the roguishly sexy member of Guardians of the Galaxy), and Marvel would be wise to take note of her.
She, and to a lesser extent Jones (who breathes life into her aggressive shtick), shocked me because I am not familiar with them from Saturday Night Live (I am among the legion that has casually ignored the show for much of its recent run). I didn’t recognize her from that context, but I can tell you this — I know funny, and she most certainly is. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: B