The key to the Ghostbusters reboot is that it works not so much as a comedy (it’s fitfully amusing) or as a big-budget adventure but as an unforced celebration of feminism. The four heroic women suffer some sexism, but not enough to get in their way significantly (they mostly power through and do what they want anyway). If they’re not taken seriously, it’s not because they’re female but because they insist in a secular age that ghosts exist. At heart it’s a story about two friends since childhood, who grew up to be scientists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), and who have grown apart since co-writing a book on the paranormal, which Erin has disavowed. The whole creaky, noisy spectacle leads to the moment when one of these women literally jumps into the abyss to save the other.
That’s what it’s all about, in the end; saving the world is okay, but sisterhood matters more. Ghostbusters has a sketchy script (by director Paul Feig and Katie Dippold), which functions largely as a clothesline for supernatural gags, but then so did the script for the sacrosanct 1984 original. (Aside from Peter McNicol’s performance, I’d just as soon forget about the wanting 1989 sequel.) I think Feig and Dippold, probably with the encouragement of the actresses, really just wanted to tell a small-scale story about the bond between smart women, and in Ghostbusters they seized the chance to do it on a massive scale, on a $145 million budget. God knows most of the legitimately funny bits could have been filmed in a one-bedroom flat for five dollars. But movies like that don’t get greenlit any more. Movies that cost $145 million and have a connection to a beloved franchise do.
Feig enjoys stories about friendships between women, and he has told them again and again in the last few years, in Bridesmaids and The Heat and Spy. Two minority women, the African-American subway worker and armchair city historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and the crypto-gay nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), round out the quartet of ghostbusters, and they all go to the limits of existence for each other. They’re afraid but forge ahead anyway, the true definition of bravery. Ghostbusters was not as big a hit as it should have been, or else McKinnon would have handily stolen the summer and perhaps the year. She gives us a scientist highly entertained by the buzz of her own brain; weird noises and asides keep leaking out of her — she’s placidly unstable and very much giddily alive. Jones’ Patty largely recalls Richard Pryor’s routine about black people’s comically pragmatic response to the supernatural (get the hell out) while managing to feel much less like a token afterthought than Ernie Hudson’s black ghostbuster in the original.
This Ghostbusters doesn’t feel like its predecessors, or look like them; it lacks the original’s cool, slick ‘80s lamination — the director of photography is Robert Yeoman, who provides the warm, bright hues of every Wes Anderson film (and all the aforementioned Paul Feig movies). The phantasms glow sickly green, and spew green slime; the improved technology gives us more visually elaborate ghosts but can’t give us a reason for their ghosting around. There’s a plot thread about some nerdy mad scientist trying to start the apocalypse (ah, that old thing), and the movie itself seems fatally uninterested in everything to do with it. This nerd gets killed about an hour in and spends the rest of our time hopping from body to body, eventually settling inside the ghostbusters’ hunky but dim secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, enjoying being stupid). I don’t imagine Paul Feig cared about the whys and wherefores of the ghosts; I know I didn’t.
Yet Ghostbusters is commendable for its respect for intelligence, its regard for friendship; its Stronger Together emphasis feels like a balm in the cold days post-Hillary. (It may be best apprehended as an artifact of the era when a female president seemed tantalizingly imminent.) Unlike the original, it doesn’t proceed from a writer’s genuine hungry obsession with all things inexplicable. The ghosts symbolize loud, chaotic elements seeking to split up our heroes, so they have more going on under the hood than they did in the original, where the ghosts didn’t mean much of anything except gag fodder. Here, the ghosts have a certain beauty and pathos, and are sometimes scarier than their ancestors (though Slimer makes an appearance, as do many other fan-service ghoulies and actors). The movie is more readily comparable to Feig’s other work than to its forefather. It’s a comfortable night out (or in), pleasing and unchallenging.