Ghostbusters (2016) is a movie with a hell of a pedigree. You have four leads that are individually very funny and talented comedians, and a director who has produced some fine comedic work. On paper, this sounds like a wonderful way to reboot a franchise that’s floundered since the second Ghostbusters film in 1989. Come to think of it, let’s not talk about Ghostbusters 2, a movie that squandered the talent of its cast with unfunny material and a groan-worthy conclusion. With that in mind, it’s not like this new Ghostbusters had a very high bar to meet. The original ’84 Ghostbusters is one of those lightning-in-a-bottle meetings of powerful comedic forces and can simply never be duplicated. The second one… eh, not so much. If this new film can fall somewhere in the middle, you have yourself a decent movie worthy of the name.
Sadly, that’s not the case. Ghostbusters ’16 is a lifeless, unfunny film that is more infuriating for the talent involved in its production. The movie serves as a full reboot, ignoring the first two films altogether. Kristen Wiig is Erin Gilbert, a professor on the cusp of tenure at a prestigious university. After being approached by a fan of her early work, a book all about the paranormal written with then-friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), she learns that her sordid history of plumbing the paranormal depths is now a Google search away and rushes off to confront Abby and have the book taken off the market before her stuffy colleagues get wind of her ghostly interests.
As fate and the script would have it, Abby has teamed with weirdo physicist and engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and launches into full scientist mode when Erin lets it drop that the man who came to her with the book wants help in investigating a haunting. The trio find themselves face-to-face with a real ghost, igniting a desire to pursue her former interests in Abby. Before you know it (really, this happens in a whirlwind), the three are working for themselves as paranormal investigators, and have picked up history buff and token normal person Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to round out the team. Also along for the ride is Chris Hemsworth, playing a mentally challenged secretary named Kevin.
The thrust of the story is nerdy outcast Rowan’s (Neil Casey) plans to rig the city with paranormal bombs, creating gateways for ghosts to enter our world in an attempt to create enough energy to open a portal large enough that all of the entities on the other side of the supernatural veil are given passage to our world. Our quartet of Ghostbusters are, of course, the only ones with the tools and the talent to stop Rowan and his army of spooks.
For much of the film, the beats of the original are copied to diminishing effect. The introduction of the Ecto-1 feels too contrived, the opening scare dismisses any notion of subtlety (unlike the supremely eerie floating books in the original’s pre-credits scene) and the final act loses all sense of what a Ghostbusters film should feel like. It’s a CGI-packed action sequence, which is never what the original Ghostbusters films were about. Characters behave erratically, all according to what the scene requires instead of feeling like natural extensions of the characters as we know them. One example was particularly head-scratching, when McCarthy’s Abby, the closest to the excitable and curious-to-a-fault Ray Stantz this film boasts, is seen wringing her hands over the possible presence of a ghost at their office. Moments before, she is laughing her way through an encounter with a malevolent spirit, and now, apparently because the script needs her to be, she is a nervous mess.
That is, I suppose, better than Kristen Wiig’s role in the film. She begins as a timid, anxious character and pretty much stays there. She has some flirtation with Kevin and a few more barbed exchanges with McCarthy in some clearly improvised scenes, but her character is a virtual non-entity in the film. Wiig, who has proven time and again to be one of the funniest women in film (really, see Welcome to Me if you haven’t) never generated a single laugh from me or the audience during the screening I saw. She is, for lack of a better term, a ghost that haunts the movie but has little agency within it. McKinnon gets to play over-the-top weird, which generates a couple of laughs, but even she is wasted in this jokeless mess. Jones as the newcomer and amateur historian is the one character that seems at least consistent through the movie, even if she doesn’t get many laughs, either.
And that, at the end of the day, is the greatest fault of Ghostbusters ’16. It’s simply not very funny. I laughed out loud four or five times during the almost two hour running time, and that just isn’t enough to justify sitting through this maelstrom of boredom. Almost no decision made by the creative team behind the film appears to be the correct one. The villain doesn’t feel threatening, and the CGI cacophony in the final act is a giant pile of who cares. There appears to be no central character, or, if it is Wiig, she’s so slight as to feel like she’s hardly there at all. The thing that makes the original so powerfully funny and captivating is a lead performance that is peerless in its casual dry humor and sense that Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman buys the supernatural happenings no more than the average person. He’s both audience surrogate and the guy we all want to be – cool and confident and always calculating the angles. This movie has no swagger, no confidence that it’s the smartest thing around. How could it when so much time is spent reminding you how the central characters are scientists, right everybody? Erin loves the scientific method! She said so! Ugh, it’s just so tiring to have these characters tell us one thing and do another entirely.
I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I was hoping that the team of wonderfully funny comedians could make the movie, at least, funny and hang the plot, which didn’t matter that much in the original, either. Instead, the characters are thin and rote, the side characters hold none of the charms of a Louis Tully or Janine Melnick or Walter Peck and no one actor steps forward to carry the movie, though McCarthy comes closest and is working hard here.
If you’re a fan of the original, it’s disheartening to see the things you love about the ’84 classic changed for the sake of changing them with no added benefit to the story (aside from slipping in another unnecessary cameo) and characters that you find it difficult to care about. At the risk of repeating myself, the greatest sin is how unfunny this remake is. It’s a dull affair, so much so that I left before the end credits stinger just to get out of that theater and wash off the air of failure that the film generates for nearly two hours. Only recommended for the most die hard of Ghostbusters completists, and then with the warning that this is NOT the Ghostbusters you know and love. It’s just a bad movie.