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The Current Debate: Getting Serious About "Ghostbusters"

The debate around the new film finds merit in Hollywood’s mediocrity.
Jacob Paul
The new Ghostbusters remake has resembled a cultural flashpoint for so long—thanks to a series of stupid protests by Internet-dwelling misogynists—that it felt like a tired topic even before the movie arrived in theaters last week. But if there is a positive side effect of that unwarranted attention, it’s that the critical debate surrounding the film has been somewhat more rousing than a decisively mediocre studio comedy might usually attract. At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis describes the movie’s generally agreed-upon strengths:
It’s at once satisfyingly familiar and satisfyingly different, kind of like a new production of “Macbeth” or a Christopher Nolan rethink of Batman. As it turns out, the original “Ghostbusters” is one of those durable pop entertainments that can support the weight of not only a lesser follow-up (the 1989 sequel “Ghostbusters II”), but also a gender redo. That the new movie stars four women is a kind of gimmick, of course, but it’s one that the filmmakers and the excellent cast deepen with real comedy chemistry and emotionally fleshed-out performances, particularly from Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Wiig, who are playing old-friends-turned-sort-of foes who need to work some stuff out.
On the flip side, at the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang hits upon the film’s most commonly noted weaknesses:
In the end, “Ghostbusters” falters not because of its representational politics — which extends to Chris Hemsworth’s amusing eye-candy role as Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ very cute, very dumb secretary — so much as the spirit of timidity that permeates the whole enterprise. The narrative complications turn rote and underwhelming, the callbacks to the original increasingly strenuous. Does anything stall a movie’s momentum more completely these days than a revolving-door parade of cameos? Murray is game enough as a paranormal debunker who makes the mistake of calling out the Ghostbusters as frauds, but by the time Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Slimer and the rest of the gang turn up, you can scarcely see the comedy for the fan service.
If that all sounds like the standard product of a Hollywood comedy with an overinflated budget, it’s because it is—apart from its leads being women, the new Ghostbusters is pretty much business as usual. But that’s partly why a critical debate about it has the potential to be interesting: it means examining in detail what would otherwise be ignored or shrugged off. On that score, Scout Tafoya’s review at Brooklyn Magazine is a useful starting point:
Compositions feel haphazard and lackluster, like the disappointing Chinese food McCarthy keeps ordering throughout the movie. Since 2011’s Bridesmaids, where [Feig’s] bloodless framing at least felt purposeful, he’s become unstoppable by putting funny women where they belong: in the writer’s room and in front of the camera. Following 2013’s The Heat, however, his direction has gotten saggy and incautious, despite employing Robert Yeoman as his cinematographer. He’s not wrong to trust the instincts and screen presences of Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, Jones and writer Katie Dippold, he’s just not doing them any favors by assuming they’ll direct the movie for him. In a way, it’s perfect that he took over a franchise from producer/director Ivan Reitman. Both men treat their cameras like a box that captures funny stuff. No more, no less.
At MTV, Amy Nicholson casts Feig’s direction in a decidedly more generous light:
Yet when Feig makes the fight sequences his own, we get a gorgeous shot of two of the stars tumbling into a spectral wormhole. We get ladies licking their plasma-pistols and shooting ghouls in the crotch. Alas, Feig's ambitious attempt at a giant dance number got killed. At least it lives on in the credits. And I couldn't help but snicker that a side effect of Rowan's evil plan transforms modern Manhattan into a retro nightmare, with old storefronts and even older ghouls. Our leads are rewound to pre-’70s New York, back before Pam Grier became the first female action hero. To save the future, they have to destroy the past — including the Ghostbusters logo. It's like Feig is hunting a second kind of ghost: the moth-eaten macho mind-set that should have died decades ago.
This kind of disagreement seems old-fashioned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe era of blandly competent, dialogue-plus-CGI blockbusters. I find it exciting even without feeling an affinity for either side, simply because these reviews abandon a baseline assumption that a studio comedy must be necessarily uninteresting. Ghostbusters seems to have overcome a critical reluctance to take big corporate Hollywood movies seriously, and so opened up space to consider what might actually be effective underneath the complaint-ready cameos and product placement. I particularly appreciate the sense of wonder in Stephanie Zacharek’s review at Time:
There’s visual glory here, too: The finale takes place in a dazzling Times Square mashup of past and present, a place where contemporary digital news tickers share space with ghost establishments like Regal Shoes, Nathan’s and an RKO National theater showing Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fists of Fury. In one of the most stunning moments, the women face down a phalanx of sinister vintage Macy’s Parade balloons—floating along, they’re a kiddie nightmare come to life, glowing and gorgeous even as they advance with menacing intent. Their macabre beauty stops the movie for a moment. They’ve come from the past to shake their fists at the present—maybe they don’t like remakes either, but that’s their problem. Happy or not, they’re part of the here and now. This is the kind of movie you make when you ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
In other words, Ghostbusters is part of the here and now—let’s take it seriously. Richard Brody, at the New Yorker, puts it better than I could:
Regardless of its lapses, ‘Ghostbusters’ should very much be seen—first, because what’s good about it is very good and, second, because what emerges from the film, as from most recent studio films, is more a matter of politics than of art. The age of aesthetics in movies is near its end in the studios, and the result is a paradox: even mediocre studio films tend to have multiple dimensions—extra-cinematic, allegorical, metaphorical—that arise from the very corporate, institutional complexity of their production, their baked-in backroom backstory; as a result, even when the viewing experience is dull, the ideas that emerge are fascinating. That’s why there’s often much more to see and ponder in a run-of-the-mill studio movie than in an unexceptional low-budget or Sundance movie: in the latter, apart from the aesthetic, there’s almost nothing. The “Ghostbusters” remake is like the campaign of a major-party political candidate—imperfect, the product of years of fighting within the system, of years of negotiation and struggle and compromise, a campaign that represents and promises progress nonetheless—which is to say, like an important new beginning, no matter what.
This year’s Ghostbusters may not be all that interesting as art, but the marks of the system that produced it ought to interest anyone who cares about movies—who cares about how they reflect and refract the world we live in, and the one we want to live in. In that light, even this “bloodless” studio comedy is something new: progress no matter what.
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.


The Current DebatePaul Feig
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