There are dual responsibilities for anyone reviewing Ghostbusters: one must address the ridiculous misogynist controversy that has leached itself onto the movie’s existence, and also do what the perpetrators of said controversy refuse to do, which is judge the film purely on its merits. Luckily, doing the latter completely, embarrassingly repudiates the former. No, a negative review of the film doesn’t necessarily imply overt sexism, but any empirical analysis that doesn’t acknowledge clear and consistent strengths is likely the result of a nagging, possibly even subconscious, agenda. Because on its merits, the film is – sorry, sexist fanboy trolls – really good.
This Ghostbusters is solid from the opening thump of Ray Parker Jr.’s iconic theme song to the Easter Egg-laden closing credits, peppered with sly humor, big character moments, and a handful of truly next-level, franchise-pushing ideas from Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold. Even while their screenplay works overtime to show reverence to the iconography of this franchise – more so, frankly, than some of these over-ardent fans deserve – Feig and Dippold are clearly wanting to blaze their own trail.
To that end, Feig continues down a path he first charted in last summer’s Spy – to fundamentally deconstruct standard gender roles in genre pictures. That film took on all generic notions of the espionage thriller, with feminism as the driving force that turned them all on their ears. Now Ghostbusters tackles something more specific, and therefore more pointed: gender roles within a singular standard-bearing franchise. Once again, nearly all characters with substantive agency are women, whereas the men are blundering buffoons, frequently to the point of overt ludicrousness (Chris Hemsworth as the team’s receptionist reaches peak absurdity). So perhaps the internet man-trolls are right to be scared – Feig and Co. are aiming squarely at the patriarchy and scoring direct hits.
Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are essentially co-leads, Doctors Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, estranged colleagues whose studies focused on the presence of the paranormal. Gilbert strayed into the more legitimized academic realm of scientific study, whereas Yates has stayed the course and conducts her research out of a low-rent unaccredited quasi-university. Their dynamic doesn’t resemble the Venkman-Stantz push-pull of the 1984 original, nor their own interplay from Bridesmaids. In fact, the one small flaw in these characterizations is that they essentially function on the same energy wavelength, with Wiig’s persona mildly tamped down and McCarthy’s more drastically so. The comic verve is injected from their colleagues, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA attendant who joins the ‘busters after a ghost encounter (another quibble: the odd symmetry with the original in casting the sole black participant as a non-scientist).
Villainy abounds here, but the actual villain is relatively non-descript – a nerdy obsessive who speaks almost exclusively in grave platitudes, imbued with foreboding attitude by Neil Casey but never quite given enough narrative juice to fully develop as anything other than The Guy Who Opens the Floodgates. Conflict in general is handled interestingly in this screenplay, which keeps the stakes more personal than globally dire, focusing on the witty interplay between the Ghostbusters themselves and the public perception that they are looneys or frauds. Less chest-thumping, more ennui. And yet this film’s science is less convoluted than the original’s, and its ghastly threats are creepier. Feig is playful with certain genre tweaks, spiking comedy with scares and horror with laughs. He’s also surprisingly adept with effects; the film looks pretty spectacular, and there’s even a playfulness within the use of post-production 3-D effects that are perfectly not seamless.
A big Times Square showdown closes the film, as one might expect, but Feig introduces a couple of next-level conceptual toppers that fully reinvigorate what might’ve otherwise been a climax rerun. But even in its most grandiose moments, this Ghostbusters stays at ground level with its fabulous central foursome, each of whom is given big moments of heroism and humor. Wiig and McCarthy sacrifice their more boisterous tendencies to act as dual anchors, leaving McKinnon and Jones to go bizarre and broad, which is a fine balance in this fantasy world.
Just as reviewing Ghostbusters is a dual task, its ultimate success is a dual pleasure. It’s a fun and subversive summer blockbuster, as well as a cathartic proton blast to those unseemly ectoplasmic social media entities.