REVIEW: New ‘Ghostbusters’ ain’t afraid of ghosts, gentrification

Image: Columbia Pictures

Image: Columbia Pictures

When Ghostbusters was released in 1984, Pauline Kael wondered why audiences were falling for it. Too rigid and overproduced for an anarchic comedy but too shaggy and shapeless for a blockbuster, it was big but not very funny. Still, it was a smash, and Kael pinpointed a reason audiences might’ve been eating it up: the performers. Bill Murray, she said, turned “burnout into a style.” She praised his “patent insincerity” and the amount of alertness and energy he poured into being “bleary and blasé.” He made being a bum—“unconcerned and indifferent”—seem like something graceful. And Sigourney Weaver, Kael said, was “blazingly alive.” “Eye to eye” with Murray, she was “a living zinger.” The scene where Murray asks Weaver out at the Lincoln Center fountain (he does “a happy little hop”) was, for Kael, a game changer: Murray, then in his counterculture prime, had finally loosened his caustic bite, revealing something outward and endearing. “After the majestic Sigourney has appeared and agreed to go out on a date with him he lifts his arms toward heaven and twirls.” A star—one for the whole family—was born.

That review appeared in The New Yorker, and Ghostbusters caught the city at the end of an era. At the time, some of the best moviemakers in American movie history were documenting New York at its nadir. The urban decay that fueled movies like Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and Death Wish gripped a nation that was still reeling from assassinations and riots—there was something scary in the air, and Manhattan was Ground Zero for the deranged hippie that haunted nightmares across the country.

But to the cutting-edge goofs at “Saturday Night Live,” there was something funny underneath the chaos. Dan Aykroyd, riding high on The Blues Brothers, developed the idea with John Belushi in mind, and one wonders what that movie would’ve looked like. Of course, the material was reworked following Belushi’s death. Meanwhile, two gold mines were shifting the movie-going climate: Star Wars and the Superman series were printing money off of merchandising, and home-video formats like VHS were proving audiences wouldn’t just be okay with watching movies at home—they’d do it over and over again. By the time the kid-friendly Ghostbusters made it to theaters, it bore little resemblance to its anarchic roots.

Audiences loved it. It was the cuddliest vision of Gotham rot yet, and an entire generation grew up wearing out their videotape copies. But even Hollywood couldn’t quite wash off the grime: Murray injected it with his trademark misanthropy, and the just-pre-Giuliani locations felt like an instant time capsule. Ghostbusters is very much of its era—it’s an ode to bootstraps entrepreneurialism and its villain is the EPA—but its nostalgic pull is intractable: had a movie ever been seen (and, with the aid of officially licensed toys, so faithfully reenacted) so many times during so many kids’ most formative years?

Maybe—Star Wars came first. But the love that greeted that movie’s reboot last year hasn’t extended to this one’s. A loud subset of people has been bemoaning the new version of Ghostbusters since it was announced, and the buzz greeting its release is strangely muted. That could be a reaction to this version’s decision to swap its protagonists’ gender. If that’s true, it’s woefully upsetting. But at the same time, The Force Awakens did the same thing: its “Luke” had two X chromosomes. Maybe it’s easier to imagine women star warring than ghost busting—that women space wizards make more sense than women apparition catchers. More likely, J.J. Abrams and crew were just savvier marketers. (Make no mistake: neither move is a symbol of victory in the fight for equal rights—these decisions were driven by money, not politics.)

That’s too bad; for the most part, the new Ghostbusters is a fundamental improvement on the original. It has a keen, go-for-broke deliriousness that almost distracts from the cash-grab mentality at its core. It’s an eye-popping ride and a candy-colored sugar rush of special effects that, thanks to a nifty trick with the aspect ratio, seem to literally jump of the screen. But it can’t scrub the mercenary materialism that’s haunted the franchise from the beginning.

Since the release of the original, the supernatural-comedy formula has been refined to the point of near self-parody: when the group’s demented scientist (Kate McKinnon, this version’s Egon) reveals her homemade arsenal, it feels more like a commercial for Men in Black toys than organic narrative development. That high-concept inevitability—that these are just a series of sketches leading to a special-effects fireworks factory—is reinforced by the parade of go-nowhere celebrity cameos: it wants to suggest a hangout vibe but can’t nail the tone. Of course, seeing everyone have such a good time is a goof; and the feeling is sometimes infectious. But, with something this expensive, we can’t get too goofy—this is safe fun, after all—and a reappearing Murray’s delivery of a single line (“Attagirl!”) functions as a callback to a line in the original and the sneering danger he brought to it.

That feeling of constraint possesses the movie, and the movie fights it with sheer energy. But the performers, who’ve all succeeded with more adult material, seem to want to be dirtier than the movie will allow. The sense that everything’s been buffed clean of threat is most distressing in the production design. This version approximates New York with a cocktail of Boston, Los Angeles, and a dash of the real deal. And despite the spirits running amok, it’s the specter of gentrification that really haunts these environments. There’s a gag about the city’s impossible cost of living when a realtor shows the gang a downtown firehouse currently renting for just north of $20,000 per month; and a second or two later, they’ve settled into a second-floor office in Chinatown. (Only a few blocks away in reality, and not much less expensive.) Outside of ordering takeout, they never interact with their new neighborhood, and it’s easy to imagine the Chinese restaurant downstairs turning into a gallery by the sequel.

And like gentrification, the movie has a warped vision of how the past informs the present and a near-clueless relationship with reality. (Leslie Jones plays an overly attentive MTA employee with a helpfully encyclopedic knowledge of Tri-State history.) When the villain eventually releases “the ghosts of the city’s past” at a Disneyland-style, bellhop-staffed hotel incongruously positioned in the middle of Times Square, the crew battles apparitions dressed like gangsters, pre-war street toughs, and pilgrims in some kind of time warp. The walls melt and the neighborhood’s marquees turn into a period-spanning pastiche, announcing a Woolworth’s or movies like Fists of Fury and The Godfather. (Anyone with a working knowledge of Times Square history could tell you that the area was popular for a very different kind of movie.) After the ghosts are caught, everything’s back in one, shiny piece.

It’s a celebratory moment, but it feels as hollow as a Hollywood set. At the same time, today’s Times Square isn’t far from a studio backlot, and Ghostbusters was never about authenticity—its secret weapon was a sarcastic remove. And if gentrification is about replacing unfortunate artifacts with misty-eyed approximations, then Ghostbusters is a good place to start. The new version may be a victory for progress—it just doesn’t feel very progressive.

Ghostbusters. Directed by Paul Feig. Written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. Opens in Kansas City July 15, 2016.

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