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The all-new Ghostbusters arrives with enough baggage to rival the weight of a nuclear proton pack. When Sony announced plans to remake the classic 1984 sci-fi comedy with four female leads, they launched a pre-release narrative that would feature more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Progressives cheered the decision as an important rebuke of Hollywood sexism. Meanwhile, the loudest and whiniest fanboys cried foul, citing the sanctity of the original film. The backlash had its own backlash, and all of a sudden, purchasing a ticket to Ghostbusters became more than a choice in entertainment. It was now a political act.
Thankfully, the movie itself requires a more nuanced perspective from the viewer, as both the benefits and the drawbacks of identity-driven commercial filmmaking are on display. First, the good: On a micro level, Ghostbusters is refreshingly sensitive to women in ways that few blockbusters are. Consider a small but meaningful moment early on when Erin (Kristen Wiig), a chemistry professor up for tenure at Columbia University, receives a stern warning from her dean (Charles Dance) that inexplicably includes a comment on her outfit. There’s also an exchange about the perils of reading internet comments that, given the firestorm that erupted when a male blogger recently announced he was boycotting the film, feels downright prophetic.
Unfortunately, these feminist touches are only skin deep, and the filmmakers fail to create a story that is truly borne out of the female experience (like Paul Feig and Wiig did in 2011’s Bridesmaids). The film is not indebted to its women; it’s indebted only to the original Ghostbusters. Erin and her estranged friend and partner Abby (Melissa McCarthy) team up with a weirdo geek (Kate McKinnon) and a streetwise New Yorker (Leslie Jones) to tackle the city’s burgeoning epidemic of the supernatural. From there, watching the film is an exercise in remembrance, an experience more likely to produce a knowing chuckle than an outright laugh. Examples: The opening scare, set at a historical home, might as well be the New York Public Library, and the team’s first job—at a haunted rock concert—feels eerily similar to the original’s hotel sequence, right down to the effete concierge who shows them around.
Still, with this many funny people in a frame, laughs are inevitable, and Ghostbusters produces enough of them to exceed the low standards set by this particular summer movie season. Weirdly, Chris Hemsworth gets the most chuckles as the team’s unfailingly stupid but hunky assistant (a throwaway bit about a dog named “Michael Hat” might be the biggest laugh in the whole movie). In contrast, the script consistently undermines the brilliant Wiig and McCarthy. Their characters are so frighteningly underwritten (I couldn’t tell you a single thing about McCarthy’s scientist) that they seem more like plug-and-play figures in a larger Hollywood scheme than believable humans. The feminist dog-whistles are nice, but what would really elevate Ghostbusters would be decent characterization. Instead, we watch as two of the funniest actresses of their generation are straightjacketed by a franchise created by men.
Thankfully, at least one of these weird, wonderful women gets to strut her stuff. As Holtzmann, the group’s oddball tech expert, McKinnon gives a star-making performance that is both uniquely hilarious and distinctly female. Male comedy stars tend to go one of two directions, either incessantly mugging (Jim Carrey) or purposefully not trying at all (Seth Rogen), but McKinnon opts for a low-key intensity that feels at once both extraterrestrial and warmly human. She’s a brief glimmer of what Ghostbusters should have been. The film around her should have been truly brought back to life or allowed to rest in peace.
Ghostbusters opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.