The new “Ghostbusters” is just different enough from the old “Ghost Busters” to be worth the trouble. Flipping the gender of the cast makes for an appreciably different take on the material, and the effects are 30 years bigger and better than most anything the 1084 film.
But watching it is a master class on screen comedy, what works and what just doesn’t. And the new film, whatever empowerment and role model virtues its creators talk up in going “Ghost Girls,” mainly doesn’t.
On paper, it’s a no-brainer. Bring in proven big screen comedy stars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy and “Saturday Night Live” comics Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones to replace 1984’s “SNL” alumni Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd, and Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson. Easy laughs, right?
Beloved as it is, the original film was a scruffy goof that got by on swagger and cynicism. Those guys, playing academic frauds — some of them, anyway — were more surprised than anybody else when they started seeing real ghosts, catching them and removing them for profit. Insults flew, men flirted with women out of their league and profane catch-phrases were proferred.
The conflict is upended, here. Men are the ones doubting these women can get a dirty job done. The cynicism is gone, or conferred on those doubting males. The swagger is gone. The women hug and affirm each other and avoid stepping on each other’s toes.
But are there big laughs in victimhood?
The first thing McCarthy’s paranormal scientist says upon seeing a real female ghost for the first time is tell her how beautiful she is. Her best running gag is a Chinese restaurant that cheats her out of her wontons.
The result is a “Men are from Venus, Women from Mars” disconnect at the film’s core. Throw in the two hour run time — almost no funny one-liners and limited appeal (special effect) sight gags — and this recycling is more wearying than surprising or amusing.
Wiig plays a put-upon and lovelorn Columbia physics professor angling for tenure. Working against her, aside from an incompetent command of Spanish? This book about the paranormal she wrote with a college pal years before. Her dean (Charles Dance) is not amused when the book, and that past, pop back up.
Because Dr. Gilbert has regretfully reconnected with that former colleague, Abbey Yates (McCarthy) and Abbey’s new partner, tech-nerd Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon) at a fifth rate college where their research is “supported” across town.
Supported until their bird-flipping dean (Jimmy Fallon sidekick Steve Higgins, funny) realizes they’re still funded, and cuts them off.
Just when New York needs them, the city’s only “real” paranormal investigating academics are out of work. Somebody is summoning the undead back from “the other side.” So the ladies set up shop over a Chinese restaurant, hire a Himbo receptionist (a very ditzy Chris Hemsworth) and are joined by a subway employee (Jones) who has seen a ghost her own self.
If only they can figure out what to call themselves.
Director Paul Feig has found his niche making comedies starring women (“Bridesmaids”), and he puts effort into servicing every star here.
McKinnon does a variation of the quirky/flirty sexually ambiguous “SNL” characters she’s played and tries her hand at Dan Aykroyd/Harold Ramis style technical mumbo jumbo in describing the ghost grenades, ghost guns and “ghost chipper” her character invents at will. She’s no Aykroyd. She mugs during her close-ups but takes extra care to not upstage her castmates in group shots.
Wiig plays yet another shrinking violet who needs to find her confidence among her peers in A Man’s World. Her best go-to move is going all girly/giggly at the gorgeous dope they’ve hired as their receptionist.
Jones strains to deliver her share of “on up in here” or “down here” cliches.
“Man, it smells like burnt bologna and regret down here!”
That leaves McCarthy to play, well, the straight man. What a waste.
The script, by Feig and veteran “Madtv/The Heat” writer Kate Dippold, allows room for a sea of cameos with precious little that’s funny for any of the stars, or the “guest stars” to say.
It doesn’t give much away to say that Bill Murray has never been less funny in a comedy, and that the only real surprise here is that Andy Garcia, playing a “Let’s keep this ‘ghost’ business under wraps” mayor, lands maybe the film’s biggest laugh with a “Jaws” reference.
They weren’t going to make Murray, still playing a cynic/skeptic, the villain. But they needed to do better than “SNL’s” Neil Casey, playing the nerd who summons the afterlife to empower his bullied, disregarded hotel janitor existence.
There was an uproar when the first trailer for this movie dropped and the criticism turned sexist and nasty. But that doesn’t excuse what was pretty obvious, way back then. It wasn’t funny, promising a movie that wasn’t funny. The re-imagined “Ghostbusters” was never going to be anything more than a note-by-note remake, without enough laughs to sustain it.
And if all you’ve got to brag about is how inclusive and empowering to little girls your comedy might be, you’ve totally missed the point.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for supernatural action and some crude humor
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Andy Garcia
Credits: Directed by Paul Feig, script by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, based on the 1984 comedy “Ghost Busters”. A Sony/Columbia release.
Running time: 1:56