First, the good: “Ghostbusters,” the all-female reboot of a generation-defining hit that starred a bunch of guys, plays like the first movie mandated by the Bechdel test. And as far as that goes, it works as an explicitly feminist reworking of the popular franchise. Paul Feig’s goofy blockbuster about four New Yorkers who save the city from supernatural threats thrives on the first-rate chemistry of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones.
Unfortunately, this quartet provides the hilarious center to a movie that otherwise has none — or, for that matter, much purpose beyond showcasing their charisma. Despite the misogynistic backlash suffered during the film’s promotion, the problems with “Ghostbusters” have nothing to do with its cast. Its undoing stems from the same issues that plague so many overproduced, market-tested products that masquerade as movies: For all the value that may be contained in an intellectual property, it’s worthless if it can’t make old ideas feel new.
Still, it’s worth noting that this “Ghostbusters” screenplay, co-written by Feig and Katie Dippold (“The Heat”), offers plenty of charming bits and throwaway lines. But these can’t save the movie from a preponderance of awkward gags that wear thin and then thinner, capped by an effect-riddled third act without fresh thrills. Remember the oddball charm of watching transparent neon specters wreak havoc on Manhattan? Here’s some more. The first sight of gooey ectoplasm lands a few well-timed laughs — and it’s fun to watch the ladies suit up and giddily ride around Manhattan in a spruced-up hearse. But once they get to work, “Ghostbusters” has all the fun of a stale Stay Puft marshmallow.
Wiig, straight-faced and klutzy, first surfaces as Princeton professor Erin Gilbert, who once researched ghostly affairs but now maintains a buttoned-up persona to maintain her credibility. That falls by the wayside when a potential client tracks her down for help with a haunting, thanks to an old book she wrote that’s being newly promoted by her old high school pal, Abby Yates (McCarthy).
It turns out Abby’s still chasing ghostly phenomena, toiling away at a second-rate New York college with a new partner in crime, irreverent tech-head Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon). As Holtzmann, McKinnon provides another reminder that she’s one of the funniest people in America, and her quirky, gadget-obsessed steampunk character owns every moment she’s in frame (and, deserves a spin-off). McCarthy, who worked comic wonders with Feig in “Spy,” comes across as a brash smarty pants — in essence, Dr. Peter Venkman and Dr. Raymond Stantz rolled into one. Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a former MTA worker and perennial loudmouth, rounds out our quartet with a role that’s just as funny but often underutilized.
Erin initially seeks Abby in the hopes of getting her to shut up about their past exploits, but soon she’s drawn into helping her old pal investigate the possibility of a bonafide paranormal event. When that encounter climaxes in a showdown with a floating specter, the group’s so giddy with the results that their enthusiasm goes viral on YouTube, turning their ambitions into a national joke. However, the Ghostbusters soon find more than enough work, picking up the trail of a mysterious bug-eyed villain (Neil Casey) intent on unleashing the undead across the city.
Casey, as a standard-issue bad guy, marks one of two prominent males in the movie. The other fares much better: Chris Hemsworth, as the Ghostbuster’s lovably idiotic secretary Kevin, has been tasked with a role once known as the dumb blonde. He’s a beefy, cheerfully clueless assistant who will hang up the phone when he’s overloaded with information and stop to grab a sandwich in the middle of an action-packed showdown.
“Ghostbusters” manages a few shrewd New York jokes (they can’t afford to rent a firehouse and instead share a crammed office in Chinatown) before it puts the group to work. After a slapstick-heavy set piece at a rock concert in which the group bags their first ghost, they’re subjected to a troubling propaganda campaign spearheaded by an image-obsessed mayor (Andy Garcia) and his pushy aide (Cecily Strong). In other words, the same old drill.
From there, “Ghostbusters” grows steadily more tedious, which seems like a missed opportunity considering the talent involved. (At one point, Jones says, “I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m pissed.” Her words cut deep.) As ghostly occurrences grow more frequent and the Ghostbusters face down a series of CGI baddies around town, neither Robert Yeoman’s crisp cinematography nor the preponderance of vibrant effects can salvage the sense that we’ve been through all this before. An outrageously silly dance bit that plays out over the credits might have worked better in the actual story, which is devoid of any memorable big moments. (McKinnon saying, “This is exactly how I imagined my death!” during a hugely implausible battle is one exception. As a general rule, McKinnon is the exception to everything wrong with “Ghostbusters.”)
And finally, the rejuvenation of “Ghostbusters” is constantly marred by attempts to acknowledge its precedents. Cameos are clumsily inserted into key moments, including almost all of the main players from the first film (with the exception of the late Harold Ramis). Ironically, nobody gets more screen time than Bill Murray. The actor was widely reported as the biggest holdout in the production of another “Ghostbusters” movie with the original cast; here, he looks so bored that it’s a wonder his fleeting role calls for him to be a public skeptic of the group. (Among the bevy of returning faces, only a certain green menace seems to be really enjoying himself.)
That iconic Ray Parker Jr. score, a catchy loop of eighties synth and cheesy lyrics, has been sped up and spun around by Fallout Boy and Missy Elliot as another reminder that, as fans may have feared, we’re basically watching a half-hearted remix of old material. It remains a catchy riff, just like the “Ghostbusters” concept itself — but even a super-charged proton pack can’t breathe new life into the ghosts of familiarity.
Ultimately, the question of whether an all-female “Ghostbusters” can succeed comes secondary to whether “Ghostbusters” was the best material for a reboot in the first place. Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original combined the goofball energy of Second City vets at their peak with some legitimately ominous ideas (that Keymaster/Gatekeeper possession sequence haunted a generation). While the new “Ghostbusters” successfully empowers female movie stars, that’s not the movie’s selling point. However, it’s the only justification for its existence.
Even then, “Ghostbusters” arrives as just one entry in an increasingly more inclusive Hollywood machine. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” foregrounded the exploits of a young female Jedi with ease, while “Mad Max: Fury Road” slyly became less about Max than the scowling badass memorably embodied by Charlize Theron.
By blatantly reworking the dynamic of the earlier films, “Ghostbusters” is more explicit in its progressive agenda and admirably achieves at least that. Its flaws lie elsewhere. At the end of the day, no amount of culturally enlightened intentions can rescue another undercooked studio product.
“Ghostbusters” opens nationwide on July 15.