Lukewarm Takes: Ghostbusters (2016)

The insanely overheated cultural conversation about the Paul Feig-directed female Ghostbusters reboot had everything to do with gender, representation, nerd rage, our nation’s ferocious cultural divide and virulent misogyny. It had relatively little to do with the actual quality of what was, ultimately, a silly movie for children about misfits fighting ghosts.

The mere idea that anyone would make a movie where the heroes fighting ghosts have vaginas struck an exceedingly vocal portion of the nerd community as heretical. How dare these SJWs mess with a sacred text like Ghostbusters

The man-babies of the internet decided to poop their adult-sized diapers, shake their rattles and scream “Not fair! Not fair! When will white heterosexual men finally get something of their own? When will we finally be represented in the science-fiction and comic book sphere?” until everyone respected their fundamental dignity and the legitimacy of their arguments. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing: I am a white, heterosexual man in the United States. Growing up, everybody looked like me in popular culture, only with more money. The same is true today. My demographic is so grotesquely over-represented in media that it becomes incredibly boring. Another movie starring (and most likely written by, produced by, and directed by) and about a straight white man? Wow! How exciting! How revolutionary! How utterly essential! 

There are so many goddamn remakes out there, why not try something different? I suppose the answer is because different is scary, and different can be risky, and different can somehow lead to people being personally offended by the gender of the stars of a reboot of a childhood favorite. 

Besides, it’s not like we’re inundated with gender-switched reboots. The female Ghostbusters doesn’t follow movies like The Blues Sisters, or She.T or Cyndiana Jones. A female Ghostbusters was a moderately risky move for a film industry addicted to playing it safe, and in this case the gamble didn’t pay off. 

Commercial expectations were high for Ghostbusters. Anything less than an out and out blockbuster that paved the way for even bigger blockbusters and spin-offs to come would be seen as a disappointment, and while Ghostbusters did okay at the box-office, all things considered, it cost too much and made too little to make a sequel likely, let alone inevitable. 

Did Ghostbusters underperform commercially because of the intense and surreally misguided sexism directed at it, or did it underperform due to weaknesses unrelated to the gender of its stars? As with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential defeat, it’s difficult, if not impossible to know, and while I enjoyed Ghostbusters for the most part, it’s not such a towering masterpiece that only a vicious misogynist could possibly dislike it. 

Ghostbusters is a silly, sloppy, mostly fun contemporary take on a silly, sloppy, mostly fun 1980s blockbuster that benefitted from much of the audience seeing it in a pre-critical state, when their response would be something like, “It was awesome when they defeated the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!” and not “That movie is thinly scripted, has serious third act problems and Ivan Reitman’s direction is proficient if undistinguished.”

In 2016, however, the movie was cursed to be seen by a large contingent of sour adults eager to take to social media with their complaints about the movie, both to warn off potential moviegoers and to punish Paul Feig and his collaborators for changing something that was important to them as a child. To be fair, the new Ghostbusters is ragingly imperfect, but then so was the original, and that has been elevated to a place of importance and significance in our society wildly disproportionate to its quality. 

The intriguingly neurotic Kristin Wiig brings her charismatically clammy presence to the role of Dr. Erin Gilbert, a physicist at Columbia and the extremely embarrassed co-author of an extremely embarrassing book (with Melissa McCarthy’s fellow physicist called Dr. Abigail "Abby" Yates) positing that ghost are real entitled Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively that comes back to haunt her figuratively when Yates republishes it. 

Ghostbusters is similarly haunted by ghosts both literal and figurative in the form of the 1984 movie, its stars and the public's irrationally intense emotional attachment to pretty much every aspect of the movie, no matter how junky or disposable. The 2016 Ghostbusters can never quite figure out its relationship to the 1984 version. It's overflowing with winks, homages, references and cameos from stars of the original but they're playing different characters with the exception of Slimer, which really only further confuses the matter. 

Gilbert loses her job and ends up starting a business busting ghosts alongside her former co-author Yates and loopy engineer Jillian Holtzmann, whom Kate McKinnon plays as an omnisexual wild card on a different plane of existence than everyone around her. It’s a joyful, funny and utterly original performance that comes to single-handedly justifying this whole curious if ultimately noble-minded endeavor. 

What does the new Ghostbusters have that the original did not? Motherfucking Kate McKinnon in what should have been a star-making role, that’s what. It’s rare that you see anything remotely new or fresh in the world of big budget mainstream tentpole blockbuster filmmaking, but McKinnon’s performance is just that. 

Leslie Jones completes the quartet and while there was an online kerfuffle about Jones not playing a scientist or engineer like the other Ghostbusters, her street-smart MTA employee and amateur New York historian is a worthy addition to a team that’s impressive in its own right, and not just as a distaff echo of the bros from the original. 

Like the 1984 motion picture of the same name, Ghostbusters has a lot of exposition and world-building to get through but handles it relatively smoothly. My favorite moments in Ghostbusters are the ones that feel ad-libbed on the fly by an overqualified cast led by alum of the Judd Apatow school of improvisation. This was true of the original as well: almost everything that I enjoyed about it with the exception of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was improvised by Bill Murray or Rick Moranis. 

The titular quartet of ghost-busting gals are assisted, after a fashion, by receptionist Kevin, whom scene-stealer Chris Hemsworth plays as an Adonis with the face and physique of Superman’s more handsome, virile, powerful older brother and the misfiring brain of a grown-up Ralph Wiggum. 

Kevin is really too transcendently stupid and oblivious to even exist, yet he’s able to coast through life and a job he’s singularly unqualified for solely on the basis of looking like Chris Hemsworth. Considering the estrogen-fueled nature of this movie it almost seems wrong to have a big, brawny handsome white guy deliver the funniest performance, after McKinnon at least. 

The paranormal investigators square off against Rowan (Neil Casey), a sad, sour little man seemingly modeled on the kind of sad, sour little man who would take to the internet to express his blood-boiling rage over something like a Ghostbusters reboot that’s not a total sausage party. Rowan wants to unleash paranormal hell on earth and only our intrepid heroes can stop her. At times Ghostbusters seems to be inviting us to feel a little pity for Rowan, an inveterate loser intent on making the world feel his pain, but by the time he’s inhabiting Kevin’s body in the third act he’s nothing more than a typical enraged nerd. 

Like the 1984 Ghostbusters, this iteration has difficulty navigating tonal shifts between funky, improvised, small-scale comedy and large-scale action set pieces involving great masses of CGI ghosts. For a movie called Ghostbusters, Feig’s film is surprisingly short on memorable ghosts. The one exception is Slimer, or Onionhead, as he is alternately known, and his new love interest, Slimerette. 

Watching Slimerette I quickly came to understand the real reason so many man-children raged against the movie: they were overwhelmingly sexually attracted to this lady Slimer, with her lurid red lipstick and purple bow. Rather than acknowledge their unusual sexual preference, they instead channeled that energy into attacking a film that both aroused and confused them. 

There are so many people out there raging against the lady Ghostbusters because they cannot admit their sexual attraction to Slimerette that I’ve come up with a name for them: Slimersexuals. Will this phrase catch on the way Manic Pixie Dream Girls has? Yes, yes it will, though it may prove to be even more popular and widely used. Webster’s Dictionary, you may want to set aside a slot for “Slimersexual” in next year’s edition just to be ahead of the curve. 

I imagine that most, if not all, of the people who wrote angry screeds against Ghostbusters for crimes against geekdom and mankind (the two are synonymous in many an angry geek’s mind) did so while masturbating feverishly to a slowed-down clip of Slimerette’s cameo. And crying. And commenting on Men’s Rights message boards. 

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if those geeks tried to keep people from seeing Ghostbusters specifically so they could go to theaters in a trench coat and masturbate to those scorchingly erotic seconds Slimerette is onscreen in the privacy of an empty theater, without the judgmental eyes of fellow moviegoers or the even the more disapproving eyes of movie theater security and the police.  

If you were to draw a Venn Diagram of Alt-right Furries, Slimersexuals and people who gave Ghostbusters one star reviews on IMDB it would form a perfect circle. I wouldn’t be surprised if Slimerette replaces Pepe the Frog as an alt-right mascot sometime soon. Because while misogynists may profess to hate this version of Ghostbusters, they can only deny their attraction to Lady Slimer for so long. 

I am not here to Slimer-sex-shame anyone. If you can only achieve orgasm while gazing lustfully at a female version of a popular fictional male ghost from your childhood, then more power to you. Enjoy your perverse fantasies in good health. Much nachas to you! 

But if you’re unable to be honest with yourself or the world about your intense, almost pathological sexual attraction to a fictional, non-human character from a silly movie, and use that sexual confusion as fuel for misogyny, then I have no pity for you. And I don’t think a catch like Slimerette, who has literally millions of nerds fantasizing about her constantly, would ever date a sour, misanthropic loser like you. 

Slimer isn’t the only familiar face from the 1984 Ghostbusters to return. In fact, they get pretty much the entire main cast to return for cameos with the exception of Moranis, who retired from the film business ages ago, a decision that seems particularly wise here. These cameos double as a stamp of approval from the original team. From a commercial stand-point I can certainly understand the value in that. Murray, Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver’s cameos serve to reassure anxious and concerned audiences that they’re onboard with the reboot but each cameo drags an already pokey and meandering movie to a screaming stop.

There was a time when getting Bill Murray to appear in a movie represented a real coup. It’s weird, three years ago I watched every single Bill Murray movie for a Careerview in The Dissolve and I was struck by the scope and grandeur and greatness of his career. Yet in the ensuing years I’ve lost a lot of respect for Murray to the point where his appearance in a film has come to seem more like a liability than an asset. 

That’s true of his laugh-free performance here. Every time the new Ghostbusters takes time out to pay tribute to the original film it completely halts its forward momentum and undermines its personality and distinctiveness and right to exist as its own entity. Indeed, my favorite moments in Ghostbusters stand out largely because they represent a clear break from the source material, like a delightful sequence the women all dance to DMX’s “Party Up.” You would never expect a sequence like that in a Ghostbusters movie, and that’s what makes it wonderful. 

The bigger Ghostbusters gets, the more leaden and lost if feels and an end-credits dance sequence set to an atrocious pop-rap song is so bad it actually drags the movie’s quality down a little. Otherwise, I enjoyed Ghostbusters for what it is, a mostly pretty fun action-comedy that’s also sloppy and a bit of a mess. That’s also pretty much how I feel about the 1984 Ghostbusters. Yet despite my lukewarm feelings about the Ghostbusters franchise, if those motherfuckers in Hollywood dare to make a gender-switched version of Ghostbusters where the heroes are dudes, I will do everything in my power to keep that travesty from being made or exhibited. 

Because some things are too important to mess with, goddamnit. The Ghostbusters all being women is one of them. 

Support Nathan Rabin's Happy Place at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace