Ghostbusters review – a misfiring remake

Despite a brilliant cast, this all-female reboot fails to deliver the gag power of the original. However, it’s hardly the disaster the trolls have been predicting

When word first broke about a female-led reboot of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 fantasy-comedy Ghostbusters, the internet reacted with a stream of sexist bile more foul than the slimy green ectoplasm spewed up by an angry demon. Like the shrieking anger that greeted news that 2014’s Annie would have an African American star, Ghostbusters 2016 became the focus of hostility born of prejudice and disguised as reverence for the source material. And as with Will Gluck’s flawed but serviceable musical (which I enjoyed more than many), it would have been great to report that the finished film is good enough to shut the bigoted naysayers up once and for all.

The harsh truth is that it isn’t – at least, not quite. Although infinitely more crowd-pleasing than the poisonous trolls had hoped, the new Ghostbusters is at best a qualified success, an often entertaining, generally likable, but also uneven affair that doesn’t maintain the high-jinks high notes of director Paul Feig’s finest work, Bridesmaids. Reuniting Feig with stars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy and drawing upon the skills of The Heat screenwriter Katie Dippold (whose CV includes the much-loved TV series Parks and Recreation), Ghostbusters provides several chuckles and a couple of belly laughs. But given the stellar talent involved, one might have hoped for a little more ho-ho and a little less ho-hum.

Things start promisingly, with a House of Usher backstory setting up some absurdist dialogue about facial bidets, anti-Irish fences and PT Barnum’s inspiration for enslaving elephants. The laughs continue as Wiig’s tweedy NY professor Erin Gilbert is forced to seek out McCarthy’s renegade spirit Abby Yates, with whom she once wrote a book entitled “Ghosts From Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively”, a 460-page embarrassment for the now respected academic. Only by introducing Abby to the custodian of the allegedly haunted Aldridge Mansion can Erin gain assurance that the book will perform its own magic trick and disappear from Amazon. But once inside the spook house, a spewing spectre relights Erin’s ghostly fire and ghostbusting is the new boom business.

After which, it’s business as usual, with the familiar proton packs, ghost traps, logos and vehicles of the original revisited in variously updated fashion. We get appearances from an ever-hungry Slimer and an oversize Stay Puft marshmallow man, alongside cameos from the original principal human cast; Bill Murray may be billed as a “famed debunker”, but he’s gamely onside here. Completing the new dynamic foursome are Leslie Jones’s subway employee Patty Tolan, lending a laugh-out-loud edge to some less-than-sharp material (she’s smart and funny enough to neutralise the controversy that surrounded the film’s racial politics), and Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann, a whizz-kid inventor who comes on like a cross between Lori Petty’s Tank Girl and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Emmett Brown, with little of the zany charm of the latter and a touch of the faux-punchiness of the former.

Watch the trailer for Ghostbusters.

As before, there are tips of the hat to timeless horrors (a heavily trailed Exorcist head-spin is subtly supplemented by a murmured assurance that “you’re gonna die in there”) spiced up with a running retro-80s gag that sees our heroines busting moves to Rhythm of the Night by DeBarge (“I thought it was Devo”) and cracking wise about Patrick Swayze movies. All the more bizarre, then, that the climactic set piece should take us back to the 1970s “glory days” of Times Square, where Willard, Fist of Fury and Isle of the Snake People are playing alongside Taxi Driver and Tommy. There’s also a guitar-crunching debt to Animal House (with an old-hat Ozzy Osbourne punchline), a lilting quote from The Wizard of Oz and a sight gag lifted from Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein that I’m unsure whether to file under homage or plagiarism.

Amid the scattershot scrappiness, several jokes hit their mark, most notably those that go for the ghoulies, as the Busters significantly do with one particularly pesky spook. Casting Thor star Chris Hemsworth as beefcake receptionist Kevin (a “stripogram Clark Kent”) is a neat role-reversal touch, while a scene in which the women read comments below their online video (“ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts”) directly addresses the misogyny that greeted the movie’s trailers. Throw in Andy Garcia and the best Jaws joke of the year and Ghostbusters justifies its popcorn existence. That it does so while passing the Bechdel test with flying colours is an achievement. But like the equally ramshackle Ab Fab movie, which was fine as opposed to fabulous, I wanted it to do so much more – to cross the streams rather than just reverse the polarities. “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass,” said Murray in the original. This new version may conquer the box office, but structurally it stoops and stumbles.

Contributor

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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