It’s been about a month since I saw Ghostbusters and the first thing that strikes me when sitting down to write about it is how utterly forgettable it turns out to have been, both as a film and a phenomenon. Part of me hesitates to say that, just because the film was pre-emptively disavowed in about the worst possible way – because it didn’t conform to the sentimental and precious fantasies that thirty-something white dudes have for the original. Strangely, I never attached to the original – either as a child or an adult – so it’s probably easy for me to dismiss and caricature the fandom that has attached to it. Nevertheless, the litany of objections made in advance – as well as the self-congratulatory “liberal” openness to an all-female cast – has certainly exposed the dark side of a certain kind of cinematic fandom.
So while I may have found the film forgettable, it’s not for these reasons – in fact, it’s for the exact opposite reason. For all the ink that has been spilled about how and why this adaptation is going to anger, outrage or scandalise fans of the original Ivan Reitman release, what is so oppressive about 2016’s Ghostbusters is how reverential it all is. Far from setting out to drastically revise the original film and create a new and brilliant comic riff on the same subject matter, this is a film that doubts itself at every turn and introduces so many apologies for itself that it might as well not exist.
That manifests itself first and foremost at the level of charisma, and the way charisma is handled, since this is not much of a departure from the original film in terms of narrative – once again, we’re presented with a team of paranormal scientific misfits, played here by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, and once again we’re presented with a series of supernatural entities converging on New York City. In fact, so similar is the plot to the original film that it often plays as a straight adaptation more than a vivid transformation, forcing the four women to simply inhabit the roles of their male forebears rather than carving out new ones for themselves.
The most drastic result of that is that there is virtually no real or sustained charisma to be found amongst the four female characters, with the exception of what emerges residually or inadvertently, amidst a series of fairly stock and quickly tiresome riffs on the incongruous spectacle of women in the workplace. With a less talented cast that might be less noticeable, but McCarthy and Wiig, in particular, have such irreducible and irresistible charisma that there’s a real violence in the way in which the film aims to regulate and erase even their incidental and inadvertent moments of brilliance, resulting in a stifling, suffocating atmosphere that makes it feel as if nobody dares moving an inch out of place for fear of offending devotees of the original film.
In that sense, Ghostbusters is not unlike Spy, and confirms my growing sense that Ben Falcone’s take on McCarthy is much preferable to Paul Feig’s take on McCarthy. Sure, Feig may have introduced her to the mainstream world – or at least the mainstream world not reared on Gilmore Girls – with Bridesmaids, but in many ways the role she played in Bridesmaids feels like the logical flipside of the roles she has played in Spy and Ghostbusters. For Feig, it seems as if McCarthy fits quite nearly into the role of the stereotypical “fat” Hollywood comedian: she is either morbidly placid or morbidly aggressive, with a great deal of her comic charisma supposedly stemming from the ways in which she moves from one to another.
No doubt that can work, comically, when paired with the right kind of foil and located within the right kind of narrative, and The Heat is probably the one instance at which Feig and McCarthy have really pulled it off. For the most part, however, Feig’s approach feels exploitative for me and not unexpected given his pedigree in bromances and fratboy comedies. By contrast, Falcone’s version of McCarthy in Tammy and The Boss is messier and less preoccupied with these sudden shifts between “tasteful fat” and “tasteless fat” that seem to characterise Feig’s films. By definition, then, Falcone’s films are more anarchic and less streamlined – they don’t really work as blockbusters – but in the name of trying to carve out a space where McCarthy can play characters, rather than more or less nuanced iterations of a single stereotypical fat joke.
In many ways, The Boss was the culmination of that process, a film whose brilliance partly lay in the way in which it made me realise, some hours after seeing it, that not only had there been a notable dearth of fat jokes but that McCarthy’s “size” had hardly factored into her character at all. With that film in mind, it’s hard not to find Ghostbusters regressive, since for all that the film presents itself as edgily feminist, McCarthy is shot and framed so as to emphasise how much “bigger” she is than everyone else – and everything else – in the mise-en-scene, to the point where her sheer physical presence starts to take on something of a paranormal – read: abnormal – edge in itself, making it a logical conclusion that she should be the first of the four to be possessed by the spirits making their way across Manhattan.
It’s not just McCarthy, however, who loses out here but Wiig as well. For me, there is no comic actress – or actor – working at the moment whose comedy is so built into her every gesture, posture and movement: even the way she does nothing makes me laugh uncontrollably. For that very reason, however, it’s quite difficult to cast Wiig in comedy films – unlike McCarthy, she hasn’t really had a mainstream hit since Bridesmaids – since the elusiveness and mercuriality of her comic voice often achieves its full uncanny and compelling impact when it is housed in something other than a blockbuster Hollywood comedy. It’s no coincidence, then, that her “funniest” roles have come in an indie drama – The Skeleton Twins – and a straight-faced Lifetime movie – A Deadly Adoption – nor that a great deal of her comic back catalogue tends to reside in her occasional appearances on Jimmy Kimmel, Saturday Night Live and other sketch shows, where she tends to shine in straight roles rather than overtly comic parts.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a profound uncanniness to just how deep-seated, inextricable and ineffable Wiig’s comic “manner” runs – an uncanniness that is served just as badly by Ghostbusters as McCarthy’s more free-wheeling and improvisational comic voice. Here we have arguably the two greatest comedians of their generation in a big-budget Hollywood picture, and yet the hesitation about giving them free rein to explore their comic charisma often makes it feel as if the film might not have existed in the first place. It’s all the more unfortunate in that this is exactly the kind of film where that kind of charismatic luxuriation might have been possible, since, unlike so many of McCarthy’s previous vehicles in particular, there’s not really very much plot here. Sure, there are ghosts and, sure, there are battles to be won, but, like the original, it’s pretty much just a collection of oddballs riffing off each other. In Reitman’s version, that comic riff was enough to propel Bill Murray into the comic stratosphere, and yet here McCarthy and Wiig seem diminished by the film instead, relegated to “minor” actors, while Jones and McKinnon aren’t provided with the breakout or crossover performances that they really deserved.
If anything, the film probably belongs to Chris Hemsworth, who plays Kevin Beckman, the hunky himbo who – in what is apparently supposed to be a daring subversion of stereotypes – becomes the women’s eye candy and inept secretary. In some ways, this is the most irritating part of the film, and not simply because the price the women have to play for ogling him is to become more pathetic and more slavishly dependent on his every word whenever they’re around, to the point where, in a weird inversion of the typical workplace harassment story, it feels as if the comic message hinges upon the utter incapacity of women to function in a professional environment populated by hot men. It’s also that, more simply, Hemsworth is given all of the best lines – or what are supposed to be the best lines – swallowing up all the film’s goofiness and leaving the four women to appear more shrewish, humourless or marginalised – in a word, more stereotypical – whenever he is around.
Although this is ostensibly the most “daring” part of the film, then, it really bugged me that in a blockbuster featuring four brilliant comic actresses, most of the comic labour still had to be performed by a token man – and while Hemsworth may have a fairly high acting profile, he still feels utterly token in this particular role, just because of how poorly he works as a comic actor. To some extent, his Australian accent seems designed to hide that, or at least to do some of the heavy lifting for him, but there is something singularly embarrassing – both for him and the audience – about the way the film endlessly mines him for his apparently endless comic timing and panache when two of the very best comedians of their generation are waiting in the wings with almost nothing to do. Combined with cameos from a range of other male comedians, from Bill Murray to Zach Woods, the result often feels like an apology for the necessity of female comedians in the first place, and try as they might to struggle against all that the four main characters can’t help but feel constrained by this slavish reverence to the most petulant fringes of the original film’s devoted fanbase.
In other words, the ultimate message of Ghostbusters is that feminism isn’t funny and that even the most liberal or qualified feminist impulse is so antithetical to comedy that it needs to be contained and circumscribed as much as possible. In that sense, it is the women, rather than the ghouls, who are progressively isolated and cordoned off from the rest of society, as a regressive and retrograde version of Manhattan erects itself around them, culminating with a stand-off in a pastiche of Times Square as it would have looked in the years preceding the release of the original film. Yet that very process is also what reveals the comic potential of this feminist remake, especially in the opening sections, which depict Wiig, McCarthy and the other characters in their various occupations before their professional lives converge upon ghosthunting.
Ironically, it is these segments that feel more like a workplace comedy, and a parody of academia and white collar professions more specifically, in which paranormal studies are collapsed into the kinds of trivial, “feminine” subjects that continue to be abjured at universities, but were particularly contested during the 80s cityscape against which the film is set. In a pointed and brilliant way, paranormal epistemology and feminist epistemology are fused, to the point where any articulation of the paranormal – or the possibility of the paranormal – becomes tantamount to the articulation of the group of women as professionals, both as individuals and as a group. It’s a brilliant metaphor that that cries out for Feig to explore its more anarchic and world-changing possibilities, but instead his response – like the response of most of the characters in the film – is anxious and paranoid, with most efforts to shut down the supernatural lay lines of New York playing as so many efforts to disarticulate the group of women as professionals at the same time.
Nowhere is that clearer than during the moments at which the women “encounter” the supernatural or “cross over” into the supernatural. For the most part, these take place through some kind of ectoplasmic medium – more or less gendered as “feminine” – and yet they always serve to reduce and contain their comic charisma, deflecting it into CGI spectacles that are as impotent as they are frequent. In a braver vision, these supernatural transfigurations would have drawn out the peculiar features of each actress, and consummated, rather than punctured, their peculiar professional lives. Indeed, something similar happened in the original film, except that the particular disavowed demographic being transfigured there was nerds, rather than women. Yet what Reitman did for the nerd movement is not repeated here for the feminist movement, and there may be a lesson in that, just as there’s ultimately something salutary about watching a comedy so deliberately excavated of anything resembling real comic momentum and inspiration, if only because it makes you appreciate it more when it does occur.