Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig Ghostbusters falls into same traps as original
I was just short of 20 when the original Ghostbusters was released, a little too old for it to lodge in my consciousness as an integral part of the popular culture landscape. There are friends of mine who first encountered the movie, as children, on television or VHS, and they swear by its charms and delights, both as entertainment and as spectacle. They always make me feel curmudgeonly when I admit my antipathy to it, as if I am insulting the innocence of their childhood. But I remember almost nothing about it except for the energetic ditziness of Annie Potts, one of the great underrated comedians of that era in Hollywood, and that the film neutered the anarchic stoner lewdness of both Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray.
Murray in particular seemed to be constrained by the child-friendly contrivances of the plot. He had certainly played infantile before, in movies such as Stripes and Caddyshack that were equally formulaic and inertly directed – the first by Ivan Reitman, who directed the 1984 Ghostbusters, and the second by Harold Ramis, who also starred alongside Aykroyd and Murray. But in both those films Murray was allowed to indulge his persona as the perpetual adolescent in thrall to his id and yet too lazy to get out of bed to satisfy it. He was just right for the early years of the Reagan era, suggesting rebellion unmoored from commitment and protest: watching Murray, it was clear he preferred getting stoned to getting righteous. When he was on screen you could almost smell the bong-water and unwashed jocks and I absolutely loved him. But in Ghostbusters he seemed on a leash, naughty yet charming, and not dirty at all. I recall walking out and asking rhetorically, “Who the hell wants to see a G-rated Bill Murray?”
And I prefer my Melissa McCarthy NSFW. From her first appearance in Bridesmaids she had me whooping with joy. She played a woman unashamed in her vulgarity, in her large body, and in her polymorphously perverse lust. With that one performance she gave the finger to the straitjacket that Hollywood places on women. Her subsequent choices have largely been missteps but, like Murray, she sustains an audience’s goodwill even when the film itself is dross.
The remake of Ghostbusters isn’t terrible and it coasts along on that goodwill for about half of its running length. It is directed by Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids, and though he is no great stylist as a director, he is clearly generous and supportive of his actors. He gives them the room to dominate his films. McCarthy’s coarseness has been curtailed but she has great wit and you can see her using her intelligence in her performance. She plays Abby Yates, a physicist committed to her work in paranormal activity, and she conveys the obsessively focused energy that one sees in so many talented scientists, as well as a look that suggests, when she deigns to glance your way, that you don’t rate much higher than a cockroach. She’s not trying to be likeable and that gives a steely edge to her performance. Abby is working alongside Jillian, played by Kate McKinnon, who is all manic ferocity, a near-unhinged inventor who seems to be on an unending acid trip. Both characters are cartoonish and there is genuine joy in their slapstick antics. Kristen Wiig is Dr Erin Gilbert, a former colleague of Abby’s who has turned her back on the paranormal and is angered when a book on ghosts they once co-authored is released again online and threatens her chances of gaining tenure at Columbia University. Her going to confront Abby sets the rudimentary plot in motion. They are joined by Patty Tolan, played by Leslie Jones, who works in the subway and is one of the first witnesses to the ghosts that will soon wreak havoc across New York City.
At first, Wiig seems to be content to play straight woman to McCarthy and McKinnon, but once Erin’s enthusiasm for “ghostbusting” is reignited, Wiig’s comic timing proves equal to her co-stars’. It’s a lovely understated performance, and we get the sense of what it has cost her character to have so long repressed her inquisitiveness and her daring. Jones, too, is a talented comic but her character unfortunately mirrors one of the missteps of the original film, in which Ernie Hudson had to play the African-American fourth-fiddle to Aykroyd, Murray and Rick Moranis. It is a terrible miscalculation that Patty isn’t a scientist. The new Ghostbusters is at its best when the four women rent a laboratory above a Chinatown restaurant and they can play off each other. They are like 21st-century Marx Sisters, and I can only imagine the gags and subversive humour that could have been mined if Jones was allowed to riff on the tensions and contradictions of being the sole person of colour in the academic science world. You sense the actors wanting to break free, to be more subversive and more dangerous. And, just like in the original, the filmmakers keep reining them in.
Once the ghosts are released, the actors have little to do but run around shooting at phantoms and saving the city from destruction. But, just as in the original film, the pacing becomes flabby and Feig as a director seems overwhelmed by the logistics of the CGI and the orchestration of panicked crowd scenes. Even the 3D, which has some luminosity and vividness in the early part of the film, as if we are looking at Manhattan through a jet-lag trance, becomes wearisome in the latter scenes. We don’t need to see all this money splashed across the screen. There is only one reason to see this film and that is for the performers.
It would be curmudgeonly to deny the pleasure of having four strong women as the protagonists of a blockbuster. Much has been made of an initial social media backlash against the film, but judging from the good-natured response from the packed theatre in which I saw it, the audience seems to be firmly in the performers’ corner. Such reaction indicates that the filmmakers were mistaken in pulling their punches: that they could have had the actors shake off the requirements of the hackneyed script and just let them run amok in their lab. We want McCarthy to get down and dirty and we want more of McKinnon’s Sapphic glee. If anything, this remake is too faithful to the original film.
There is a delicious irony that in this feminist remake, it is Chris Hemsworth as the women’s handsome but dumb receptionist, Kevin, who steals the movie from underneath everyone. Hemsworth’s performance is phenomenal and arguably the most groundbreaking aspect of this film. He plays an Aussie stud, an astonishingly virile and handsome man who is completely oblivious to the effect he has on the people around him. Like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, Kevin walks into a room and libidinal chaos ensues while he stands there scratching his head, wondering what the hell is going on. There’s not a hint of campness or embarrassment in Hemsworth’s acting and it is clear he is taking the opportunity to break free from the cloddish and humourless action hero roles Hollywood has been assigning him. There are not many comedians who can combine innocence and sexiness, but Hemsworth does. Kevin is childlike but there is nothing of the child in him; he is all man, and he is the object of desire for every member of the audience. Now that’s radical.
• CINEMA Melbourne International Film Festival
Various venues, Melbourne, July 28-August 14
• MUSIC Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: Blazing Baroque
City Recital Hall, Sydney, July 27-August 6; Melbourne Recital Hall, July 30-31; QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, August 8
• INDIGENOUS Garma Festival
Gulkula, Northern Territory, July 29-August 1
• MUSIC Australian Festival of Chamber Music
Various venues, Townsville, July 29-August 6
• THEATRE Trevor
Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne, July 26-August 26
• CONFERENCE Brisbane’s Finest Feminists
Visible Ink, Brisbane, July 30
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "Busted tropes". Subscribe here.