Tuesday, August 09, 2016

I Ain't Afraid of No Ghosts

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters (2016)

I was rewatching John Landis's Animal House a few months ago when it occurred to me that I was rooting for Dean Wormer. He gets the best line in the film, after all: "Drunk, fat, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." Best, because in the grand scheme of things, it's so true it hurts. All of the Deltas in Animal House are dicks of the first order, who are only "better" than their more uptight rivals by virtue of being designated  anti-establishment anti-bourgeois smartasses. This sort of thing was big in the 1970s. Indeed, I've always chafed at most of the National Lampoon-derived films from that era: Caddyshack? Chevy Chase's character is a total dick. The Blues Brothers? Jake Blues is a total dick (Elwood is kind of a cypher). Stripes? Bill Murray's character is a total dick. Trading Places? Well, that film gets by on an attitude of anti-racism until it fumbles it all at the end with Dan Ackroyd's blackface Jamaican disguise (would that character actually do that? I think not) and a joke about one of the villains getting serially raped by a gorilla. Gross. Murray's Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters? Man, that character is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Who takes sedatives with him on a prospective date? A guy who is using his "research" to creep on blonde coeds, that's who. And what about that blowjob Ray gets from a ghost? Again, gross. So when I say that I think the new Ghostbusters (2016, directed by Paul Feig) is an improvement on the original, you should bear in mind that I don't think all that much of the original beyond a certain nostalgia for my moviegoing youth. The new film, for all its faults, doesn't ask me to identify with dickish and unlikable central characters.

The new film finds tenure-tracked physicist Erin Gilbert getting her career sideswiped by a representative from a historical house-turned-museum who wants to hire her to investigate a ghost sighting. Erin is suitably nonplussed when she discovers that the reason they chose her is because a book she authored about paranormal phenomenon had been resurrected on Amazon by her old and estranged research partner, Abby Yates. Abby has continued to investigate paranormal activity even as Erin has gone off to cloak herself in respectability. She has a new partner, demented inventor Jillian Holtzman, who has been creating devices designed to capture and trap ghosts. Unfortunately, when word gets out to their respective institutions, all of them wind up out of a job. In light of the very real haunting that reunited them, they decide to go into business as freelance paranormal researchers and, um, ghostbusters. The only space they can afford is above a chinese restaurant, and the only staff they can find is Kevin, a dim, but spectacular male model, who they hire as a receptionist. They're joined eventually by Patty Tolan, a transit worker who has a close encounter with a ghost and decides the Ghostbusters need her encyclopedic knowledge of the city. And good thing, too, because someone is planting devices to breach the veil between this world and the next toward nefarious purposes. In spite of the official disavowal of the city's government, they investigate anyway, discovering in due course that the perpetrator lives and works in the basement of one of the city's more haunted hotels. This is Rowan, who wants to bring about the apocalypse and place himself in a position of power in the new order. Moreover, he's using Erin and Abby's book as a guide to bringing forth the end of days. Our heroines corner him in his lair, where he appears to commit suicide in front of them. This is only the first step of his end game, though. He has plans to attack our unfortunate Ghostbusters from beyond the grave. Rowan's ghost possesses Kevin and opens the gates to the great beyond. All hell breaks loose...

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters (2016)

It would be difficult, given this cast, to make a Ghostbusters film that's totally unwatchable. You could confine Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon in a room for an hour and forty minutes, point a camera at them and feed them improv prompts and you would get something watchable. I say this knowing full well that director Paul Feig, screenwriter Kristen Dippold, and star Melissa McCarthy have made at least one unwatchable mess of a movie (The Heat, which also has Sandra Bullock in it). They haven't repeated this dubious feat. Ghostbusters is watchable. Whether it's more than watchable depends on what's on screen at any given moment.

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters (2016)

The putative heart of the film is the relationship between Erin and Abby. The plot is constructed to provide them with a rapprochement at the end of the film. Indeed, the film's climactic light show finds Erin plunging into the next dimension in order to rescue Abby from Rowan's clutches. When the film focuses on this plot, it's inert. The rift between Erin and Abby seems constructed for the film rather than something natural, so when the film focuses on their friendship, their estrangement rings hollow. We KNOW they'll patch things up. This is no surprise. Wiig and McCarthy give this their all, but the writing lets them down. When, on the other hand, they're geeking over mutual interests, the film comes alive. And the film sparkles when it gives time to the peripheral characters. This starts at the very beginning of the film, with the tour guide at the Aldridge House, who is snark on two legs, and continues through the introduction of the other members of the Ghostbusters team.

Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters (2016)

Jillian Holtzman is a starmaking role for Kate McKinnon. McKinnon has been the best thing on SNL for years at this point, so it's no surprise that she can make gold out of her underwritten role. Holtzman steals every scene she's in, starting with the way she flirts with Erin. The queerness of her character is distinctive and unusual enough, but so too is her eccentricity. Women are almost never allowed to be eccentric AND queer-coded AND sexy (gods, the way she uses a straw and a wink). Seeing such a character on screen is a bit of a shock. There's never been someone like her in a big tentpole movie, and if the film is worth watching it's worth watching for her. It's also worth watching for Chris Hemsworth's Kevin, the best dumb blonde in contemporary film. Hemsworth is a terrific sport, giving Kevin a sweetness and an utter cluelessness that's guileless and endearing. The scene when he pokes his finger through the frame of his glasses is the film's funniest joke. Kevin is a contemporary version of Judy Holiday's character from Born Yesterday, and he's something else the film provides that's unlike anything else in contemporary film. The film does better by Leslie Jones's Patty Tolan than the original film did by Ernie Hudson. Her character is still not a scientist--a grievous slight--but she's not the hired help, either. Her savvy is demonstrably more valuable to this team of ghostbusters. It's a marginal improvement, but an improvement none the less.

Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters (2016)

The film is dead on the screen when it's indulging in its big special effects sequences. This is yet another film that presents an apocalyptic threat to New York City, complete with a vortex in the sky that must be closed, blah, blah, blah. You've seen all of this shit before. The American cinema's capacity for tickling the audience's post-9/11 masochism diminishes year by year until almost all such spectacles are numbing anymore. This film is par for the course, throwing in Peter Jackson's army of the dead, for good measure. The best "ghostbusting" sequence in the film features Holtzman wielding her new proton pistols like she's the hero of some hi-tech John Woo film. This scene is an exception to the general banality of the film's effects sequences. This is something out of the ordinary: an action heroine who is not a fetish figure, one who would do Sigourney Weaver proud. It's not by accident that Weaver's cameo at the end of the film is as Holtzman's mentor.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters is acutely aware of the "controversy" swirling around the film's release. Rather than ignore this background noise, it chooses to engage with the arrested adolescent man-children who have been sniping at the film ever since it was announced. It has some fun with comments on the internet, and its villain is the very embodiment of the worst kind of cellar-dwelling, cheetos-eating troll of the popular imagination. I wish this had more wit or more, I dunno, savoir fair maybe, but I feel that way about most of the movie. Ghostbusters is on firmer ground when it's upending the male gaze in its structure rather than it its text. Certainly, the way the film looks at Chris Hemsworth is a mirror of its characters and of its primary audience that's likely to make the film's more misogynistic detractors shrivel up at the crotch. The film isn't in the business of providing eye candy to that audience. It's certainly not interested in providing that audience with a character that represents a way "in." Its asking the audience to step outside of the dominant movie formula and identify with characters who aren't buff action heroes or anti-establishment assholes, but are rather smart women whose main superpower is their friendship with one another.

In any case, Ghostbusters is fun, sure. There's your pull-quote. I don't discount fun. Fun is important. Still, I wish it wielded sharper scalpels. I wish it cut deeper. But that's making demands of an actual movie, rather than a product or a franchise (complete with Marvel-style credit cookies). It is what it is, I guess.

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