The Ghostbusters (2016) reboot has stirred plenty of controversy, but for me it raised one question: is it possible to make a movie starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones that isn’t funny? The answer, amazingly, is yes, you can—but also, it totally isn’t their fault.
Chock full of nods and winks to its 1984 source material, Ghostbusters introduces us to its world via Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a tenure-pursuing scientist whose past as a believer in the supernatural is revealed when her former partner Abby Yates (McCarthy) puts their co-authored book on Amazon. It costs Erin her job and reintroduces her to Abby, who is still pursuing ghost science with peculiar engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon). Soon, Erin winds up in business with them, and one of their first clients, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), leads them to evidence that spectral phenomena are real—and that someone is working to bring ghosts back to the material world, overrunning the city. In the face of an incompetent government cover-up, it’s up to the Ghostbusters to save the day.
I have fond memories of the original Ghostbusters as a formative blockbuster moviegoing experience, but I’m not particularly invested in the franchise. Frankly, the misogynistic internet hate against this reboot is deeply, deeply stupid. Indeed, I was enthusiastic about giving these female stars, Wiig and McCarthy in particular, a turn in the action-comedy spotlight. They’ve earned it, and it’s long overdue. The stars make the most of it, or at least, the most of what they’re given. McKinnon and Jones, meanwhile, deliver breakout comedic performances that should put them on the Hollywood map.
But oh dear. This is not a good movie. The primary reason, I think, is simple: the script. It fails to fully exploit the premise, and it doesn’t deliver funny dialogue consistently. When it does manage a good line, it steps on it, mishandles it, or buries it in the action. More problematic is the annoying, elbow-in-the-ribs way it constantly reminds the viewer of the source material. It artlessly cribs catch-phrases and buzzwords and logos from the original, cluttering the plot with needless cameos; the overall effect is to remind the viewer that they’re watching a movie, instead of actually just being a movie. It’s so calculated, but poorly so, trying so strenuously to be something else that it doesn’t end up being itself, whatever that might have been. (It even managed to increase my appreciation for J.J. Abrams’ abilities to work in other universes; in his films, those winking callbacks are still annoying, but at least they’re clever.)
I could go on, about the overuse of Chris Hemsworth in a one-note joke, or the miserable, disbelief-shattering special effects, or the way the film fails to leverage its editing to comedic effect. Its problems are legion. But mostly I’m just disappointed that so much talent produced something so mediocre. I really wanted to like this.