Is there a blockbuster of the past 30-plus years whose magic has been trickier to reproduce than the fantasy-comedy hybrid Ghostbusters? The sheer number of talented comedians and special-effects artists out there make it seem like it should be easy. Men In Black earned some just comparisons, albeit with a more controlled, deadpan manner. But mostly it’s been a rough road; even Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman hasn’t had much luck, with the likable, intermittently amusing Evolution and, yes, Ghostbusters 2 driving home the difficulty of producing a seemingly offhand special-effects comedy that plays as well as the original 1984 film.
Remaking that film, then, becomes almost a why-not proposition: Other movies inspired by Ghostbusters haven’t really worked, so why not a Ghostbusters movie inspired by Ghostbusters? The new version follows a similar creative blueprint, assembling a successful comedy director—Paul Feig instead of the more hit-or-miss Reitman—and a crew of comic pros with Saturday Night Live connections. Its two major differences are novelty and the lack thereof: The lack of novelty in revisiting the Ghostbusters concept 30-plus years later, and the novelty of all four paranormal investigators being women instead of men. And yes, it still counts as a novelty when a Hollywood studio makes a movie with four female leads; Feig’s The Heat, with its two female leads, was a relative rarity as recently as 2013. Novelty is not the same as gimmickry, and Feig, along with co-screenwriter Katie Dippold (who also wrote The Heat), doesn’t frame the 2016 Ghostbusters as an “all-female comedy”—it just is that, or at least nearly so.
Nor do the new characters particularly map to the old ones. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) are former best friends and believers in the paranormal who have gone their separate ways, personally and professionally. Erin has suppressed her interest in otherworldly phenomena and is about to get tenure at Columbia University, while Abby works at a shoddier institution elsewhere in New York, alongside her oddball colleague Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), hoping for a breakthrough in ghost studies. Erin gets roped into their investigation at the haunted Aldridge Mansion, and the findings encourage her to ditch academia in favor of ghostbusting. When the trio looks into a subway haunting, they meet Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), possibly the friendliest and most helpful MTA employee ever, whose vast knowledge of New York City history makes her a clear choice to round out the team.
The rest of the story doesn’t slavishly remake Ghostbusters so much as respectfully riff on it, with nods to the original both big (lots of cameos) and small (a scene at a glass-walled restaurant; certain winking phrases like “mass hysteria”). There’s also plenty of quasi-scientific gobbledygook to appease hardcore fans and/or executive producer Dan Aykroyd. But the movie rests on the comic chops of its stars. The four women share a palpable enjoyment of each other’s company, and Feig may love his cast and characters more than Reitman, who ceded much of the 1984 movie to Bill Murray (as one does when Bill Murray is around). The filmmakers’ obvious affection, and the central quartet’s near-instant rapport, makes up for the Abby/Erin relationship not fully providing the kind of emotional grounding that Dippold and Feig obviously intend.
Their friendship is clear but a little muted, as is McCarthy’s performance. All of her previous major vehicles have been R-rated, and while a PG-13 doesn’t erase her comic timing or charm (her Abby is a nicer, more conventionally “likable” character than many of her previous roles), it does soften part of what makes her such a thrilling comedian. A vaguely family-friendly Ghostbusters movie is no place for her to improvise brilliantly profane threats, though she does get to do some physical comedy. With McCarthy sweetened, it’s McKinnon who goes broadest with a murmuring version of her SNL nuttiness. Holtzmann is the character who would be easiest to import into a 2016 update of the Real Ghostbusters cartoon, with her wonderfully outlandish version of a Ghostbusters get-up—part eccentric handyman, part music video. McKinnon gets some of the weirder jokes; others, and plenty of big laughs, go to Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the ladies’ supernaturally dim secretary. Kevin goes beyond handsome dummy stereotypes; Dippold and Feig write him, hilariously, as sort of a hipster dilettante who can barely function at a real job—answering the phone presents a major challenge for him—but skates through life on the basis of his good looks.
His character and Jones’ history-obsessed subway worker hit some of the most authentically New York notes in a remake of what’s considered a very New York movie. The original Ghostbusters was only partially shot in Manhattan; plenty of it was fudged out in Los Angeles, but it used enough New York exteriors to get by. The new movie often substitutes Boston for Los Angeles for New York, and gentrification makes those swaps dispiritingly easy. That this is a shinier, less gritty-looking city than the older version does reflect some kind of reality, and the movie admits as much in a clever bit about how the classic Ghostbusters firehouse would now command an astronomical monthly rent. But for the most part, its New York feels overscrubbed and underpopulated, even for 2016. Crinkled newspapers blow through the streets in one shot—not to establish grit, but as homage to the original film. And when a bad guy rants about cleansing the streets, Taxi Driver-style, it sounds almost redundant. Even the climactic destruction looks tidier.
The clean-up effort may also reflect Sony’s ambitions for this amusing, energetic comedy. Though the remake stays true to the spirit of the original, it’s also been resurrected for full franchising potential, complete with product placement, toy-friendly weapons, and a post-credits sequel tease (though it should be noted that the many during-credits scenes are delightful). The slickness affords Feig some compelling visuals in the form of more flexible ghostbusting action, courtesy of those new particle-accelerating weapons and neat ghost designs. (A group of ghosts following a certain New York holiday tradition is especially cool-looking.) The 3D version of the movie has fun throwing slime and proton-pack blasts out of the frame, complete with a shifting aspect ratio to mask the image and emphasize the extra-dimensional fakery.
It’s the most visually engaging film Feig has made, but he’s not enough of a comic anarchist to let his actor-friendly, improv-heavy sensibility run wild in the world of crazy special effects. (Reitman, for that matter, wasn’t always a dependable source of comic anarchy, either; that’s where Murray and Harold Ramis came in, with the wild card of Aykroyd’s demented conviction.) As enjoyable as this movie is, sometimes it feels like it’s holding back; no one’s id runs wild. But the limitations of Ghostbusters make Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, and Jones even more valuable. They make a big franchise-starter warmer and more endearing than it needs to be.