After months of being trashed online by some of the nastier basement dwellers in the fanboy universe, Sony's female-powered "Ghostbusters" update certainly represents progress of a sort, if not necessarily the kind its makers were aiming for. A cheerful summer lark that briefly achieves comic liftoff but peters out well before its overblown Times Square climax, it proudly demonstrates that mediocrity — whether in the hunting of malevolent apparitions or the making of a mainstream comedy — is not, and never has been, an exclusively male pursuit.
And as dubious as it may sound, this is very much a point worth making and a playing field worth leveling. It is undeniably thrilling — which is to say, it's not even remotely a big deal — to see performers as funny and versatile as Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and especially Kate McKinnon stepping into their beige jumpsuits, strapping on their proton packs and lobbing themselves into the sort of goofy, laid-back ensemble nonsense that we've seen in countless male-dominated time-killers, the first "Ghostbusters" included.
Some of the jokes here are notably sharper and more wittily syncopated than in that earlier movie, and the low-level "boo!" scares are a bit more potent, thanks to a three-decade improvement in visual effects (and an extra-stereoscopic layer of slime, should you opt for the 3-D glasses). Forced to choose between another viewing of one of Ivan Reitman's two "Ghostbusters" movies or Paul Feig's feminist reboot, I'd opt for the latter in a heartbeat, if only for the pleasure of hearing McKinnon toss off lines like "I improved beam accuracy by adding a plasma shield to the RF discharge chamber."
I'd opt even sooner for a return visit to "Bridesmaids," "The Heat" or "Spy," which individually and collectively announced Feig and McCarthy as an unstoppable dream team in American screen comedy. Those movies were superior comic showcases that, in their deft, offhand manner, also managed to be political to the core.
"Bridesmaids," which handed Wiig her breakthrough role and earned McCarthy an Oscar nomination, felt groundbreaking not because it placed women front and center where they belonged but because it erased the line between comedy and tragedy with a level of daring that few movies, regardless of their intended demographic, ever attempt anymore. And "Spy" shrewdly chided the industry and the audience for upholding sexist, ageist stereotypes, even as it achieved the smoothest marriage of side-splitting laughs and throat-slashing mayhem in many a Hollywood moon.
By contrast, Feig's latest action-comedy hybrid cloaks its stab at gender parity in the tattered rags of received wisdom and secondhand ideas. This "Ghostbusters" doesn't bring a new approach to the material beyond its subversive central conceit; worse, it doesn't seem to realize that it should have bothered to try. As with so many recent acts of cultural nostalgia masquerading as up-to-the-minute entertainment ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens" being the supreme example), the desire to please a franchise's long-standing fan base — and to placate some of its more outraged constituents — seems to have canceled out the possibility of a fresh rethink.
Admittedly, the original "Ghostbusters" wasn't exactly a masterwork of comic innovation, and it endures more as a fondly remembered collection of pop-cultural effluvia — that infectious song, Bill Murray's peerless unflappability, "There is no Dana, only Zuul" — than as a particularly good movie in its own right. Feig and his co-writer, Katie Dippold, have recycled the slapdash basics of the plot, sensibly assuming that this particular wheel doesn't cry out to be reinvented, just reanimated. And for a while, at least, their instincts prove divertingly right.
After a funny, spooky prologue featuring a sharp five-minute turn by Zach Woods as a haunted-house tour guide, the movie wastes no time in pulling together its cast of mad-scientist misfits. Wiig has the primary role of Erin Gilbert, a tenure-seeking Columbia professor who throws dignity and skepticism to the wind when she teams up with her old friend, Abby Yates (McCarthy), a scientist with whom she once shared a serious academic interest in the paranormal. Rounding out the freaky foursome are Abby's lab partner, Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), who has a brilliantly inventive mind and a deliriously loony streak, and Patty Tolan (Jones), an exuberant, easily freaked-out MTA worker who knows exactly who she's gonna call when she sees a ghost lurking in a subway tunnel.
That Jones is playing the nonprofessional tag-along of the group — much the way Ernie Hudson did in the original "Ghostbusters" movies — suggests the new film's gender correctives have not been matched by an equivalent racial-sensitivity upgrade. Patty may bring infectious energy and an old-school Cadillac hearse to the table, but Jones' talents are never harnessed as distinctively here as those of her "Saturday Night Live" co-star McKinnon, who invests her every line reading with a suggestion of irresistible, vaguely pansexual mania.
In the end, "Ghostbusters" falters not because of its representational politics — which extends to Chris Hemsworth's amusing eye-candy role as Kevin, the Ghostbusters' very cute, very dumb secretary — so much as the spirit of timidity that permeates the whole enterprise. The narrative complications turn rote and underwhelming, the callbacks to the original increasingly strenuous. Does anything stall a movie's momentum more completely these days than a revolving-door parade of cameos? Murray is game enough as a paranormal debunker who makes the mistake of calling out the Ghostbusters as frauds, but by the time Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Slimer and the rest of the gang turn up, you can scarcely see the comedy for the fan service. (The movie's most touching cameo arrives courtesy of a bust of the late Harold Ramis in an early scene.)
There is a measure of pathos in the way Feig and his actresses compound their characters' outcast status, especially when they read a few online comments ("Ain't no bitches gonna bust no ghosts") that could have been written by the movie's harshest sight-unseen critics. These Ghostbusters may get showered with special-effects slime on a regular basis, but that isn't half as snotty as the reception they get from an insufferable mayor's rep ("SNL's" Cecily Strong). They're treated as freaks not just because they believe in ghosts but because they're pathetically old, single women who believe in ghosts.
That defiant celebration of the misfit ethos is one of the reasons this "Ghostbusters" remains as watchable as it does, even in its uninspired second half. You could happily hang out with this quartet in their lab all day as they test out heavy-duty artillery, dangle each other from their upper-story windows and coo over the office boy-toy.
No one would accuse them of lacking chemistry. What's missing is the combustion, the sense of creative dynamism that occurs when intent and execution, scripting and improvisation are fully in sync. These brilliant women don't need love, protection, approval or pity, least of all their own. They just need some troll repellent and a better script.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for supernatural action and some crude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general release
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