Few films have been met with such hostility like Paul Feig’s recent reboot of Ghostbusters. When it was announced that the quartet of ghost-busting heroes would be recast as women, the Internet lost is shit. Suddenly, men and boys with glass-fragile egos were lamenting the death of their childhood and accused Feig of bowing down to some imaginary force of political correctness. What’s worse is that one of the stars, Leslie Jones, was assailed on the Internet with scores of racist and sexist abuse (egged on by queer right-wing monster Milo Yiannopoulos), and her Website was hacked with stolen private images. It was a depressing time in our culture (serving as part of a larger uglier shift in our national conversation about race and gender, due to Donald Trump’s toxic candidacy).
After watching the film, it feels strange that such an innocuous bit of entertaining fluff would be such a lightening rod for misogyny. The film couldn’t be more middle of the road or crowd pleasing. Those worried that an all-female cast would turn the beloved comedy-sci fi classic into some man-hating feminist manifesto should find solace that Ghostbusters doesn’t really address the gender issue. The fact that the four main characters are women barely makes a ripple in the plot.
Instead of making a sequel, Feig and his co-screenwriter Katie Dippold choose to retell the story of Ghostbusters. Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) are former colleagues and estranged besties who collaborated on a book about ghosts and the supernatural. After their split, Gilbert abandoned her interest in the subject and became a tenure-track professor at Columbia University; Yates, meanwhile hooked up with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and is toiling away at a garbage college, working on experiments without the support of the administration. One day Gilbert is approached by Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley, Jr.), the owner of a haunted mansion. Ed discovers Gilbert because he discovered the book she wrote with Yates. Horrified that the book may imperil her chances of getting tenure, she tracks down Yates, in hopes of burying the book. The two make a tentative agreement, and with Holtzmann they go to the mansion to investigate the haunting, and discover supernatural activity. Soon Gilbert’s efforts are discovered by her bosses at Columbia, and she’s fired, as are Holtzmann and Yates for their controversial work. So the three women band together to form an agency to investigate paranormal activity. Joining them is subway employee Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a history buff who discovers ghosts in a subway tunnel. The four women start to do some digging and discover that a nebbish mad scientist (Neil Casey) is attempting to open a Hellmouthy-kind of portal to release thousands of ghosts onto the city of New York City.
Feig and Dippold put together a solid story that moves along at a decent pace. The script indulges in a lot of tech/geek speak, which can get a bit tedious, but as seen in Spy, Feig is good at writing a story with a lot of action and suspense. Unfortunately, Feig as a director seems more interested in wowing his audience with the special effects (they are impressive) than with telling a story. It seems inconceivable that with the cast he’s assembled that they aren’t the dominant feature of the film, which is a shame, because these four comediennes are very funny and given their track records, they would provide the movie with a lot of laughs if given more room to perform. Melissa McCarthy, reunited with Feig after the superior Spy, is especially side-lined: her character is written as the straight man of the bunch, and the comic is rarely called upon to employ her fantastic gift for physical comedy, or her way with a vicious put down. Wiig, a master at creating neurotic characters, plays Gilbert rather straight, and also feels a bit underused. That leaves things to Jones and McKinnon, who both pump a lot of fun and energy into their performances – Jones, especially, is endearing as the whip-smart Patty (though the optics of three white women being professionals, while the only black woman of the bunch is not an academic is questionable – she could’ve easily been a history scholar, librarian, or high school history teacher with some minor tweaks to the script). Chris Hemsworth is also on hand as the hunky but dim-witted receptionist – and though Hemsworth is a great sport, the script pushes the dumb joke past its logic, and his goofiness approaches head injury territory.
It’s impossible to watch Ghostbusters without the context of the awful press it got when it was announced and released. Watching it felt like an action of social justice, merely because of the misogynistic backlash that met the film – not a great recipe for a comedy. The film’s script has some smart nods to the online trolls who immaturely decried the use of female characters in some smart quips – and I can’t believe that Neil Casey’s villain isn’t an allegory for frustrated toxic male entitlement. Still, Feig and Dippold stay away from feminism, which makes for an oddly toothless film. In a situation in which the film could not escape the label of “feminist” it feels like a wasted opportunity for Feig and Dippold. They should’ve just gone balls out and embrace the feminist possibilities of creating an action comedy with four heroines. In Spy, Feig created a progressive story of an oft-dismissed and ignored female hero who prevails in a male-dominated macho setting. In Ghostbusters, Feig and Dippold wrote a story about four heroes who just happened to be women. And as proven by the awful anti-woman reception the film received, we’re not at that place yet, where gender doesn’t matter.
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