Ghostbusters (2016) and the Sony Problem

Ghostbusters (2016) and the Sony Problem

I’m going to climb into the fart cloud of this film’s reaction spectacle before I even start, just so you’re thinking about it the whole time and remember to pick up your “Patriarchy Smasher” t-shirts when you go out for Papa John’s pizza later. So first, I need to dispel a few myths.

The idea that an all-female cast could ruin Ghostbusters is absurd: the original was never a tentpole for macho propaganda that would somehow corrode on contact with cooties. Ghostbusters (1984) was an awkward, weird little movie full of men that matched it, of workaday shmucks starting an extermination business. Casting could not kill it. The idea that an all-female cast automatically makes this remake beyond reproach is also absurd, as well as condescending and marginalizing: if films about men deserve to be judged on merit, then so do films about women. To do less would feed the gender riot scheme Sony wrapped like a safety blanket around this typically unfunny and cynically corporate little romp. There is nothing less funny than a film that makes you feel like a bad person for not getting its jokes.

This below-average comedy becomes a disreputable slog by whoring out its cast for a studio’s marketing angle. It becomes socially harmful in the guise of good, a defiler in prophet’s clothing, when it promotes the fair representation of young girls in a film whose feministic prowess never exceeds petty and ill-conceived passes at men, whom Sony counter-marginalizes as comeuppance, as though the playground is the most intellectual arena to which feminism has ever gained access. This “if you can’t beat em, join em” approach to gender representation only becomes more insulting when the film devolves into bad SNL reject scatology and pun humor while still self-praising as some kind of equality avenger. I feel very bad for the little girls inspired by this film who have to grow up and discover that Papa Sony scammed them out of advocacy. I feel bad for Ghostbusters fans, who are a casualty in all this, consciously denigrated by their own film as ninnies and momma’s boys (for Sony assumes all fans of the original must be male). I feel bad for all the female fans of Ghostbusters, who aren’t respected enough to be acknowledged, even through denigration. And I feel bad for the four women who star in this movie for having to not only defend Ghostbusters (2016) on talk-shows, but for having to stake their sex on doing so.

Ghostbusters (2016) is an embarrassing movie. It’s a movie that asks four professional comedians to stand in a room and react to a queef joke by mugging the camera like they’re on a mid-90s Nickelodeon Kids reality show, complete with slime. Then it asks them to tell Jimmy Kimmel in real life that anyone who dislikes the film is a momma’s boy living in their parents’ basement, unjustly staking the reputation of arguments for equal representation on the quality of one studio comedy, which grasps social justice only enough to use it as the hook for a political con. The film stands on uncertain ground even before it gets into its fake politics, when it poses as a remake of something beloved and yet has only open contempt for its fanbase (it recasts the living Ghostbusters actors as naysayers and pointless bit cameos, almost all of them as sneering idiots). Even the film's villain is unmistakably a Ghostbuster's fan, whose manliness isn't safe for even a second amidst all the incessant girl-talk.

Sony’s scheme almost worked of course (the last step would have been for the film to actually make any money). We debated the righteousness of a movie yet to be released without knowing it would contain dance sequences as major plot elements, or that it would make us feel like we were watching a drunken aunt goofing around and slurring about how funny she is. I think that’s the most embarrassing thing: Ghostbusters (2016) never stops telling you how funny it thinks it is long enough to actually be funny. Not even one time.

Even if you giggle at some of it, which you’re allowed to do, no one objectively could find the film charming. Its laughs are chopped up, boorish, like they’re all drive-by remarks with no buildup or payoff. The first contemptibly incompetent thing about Paul Feig’s direction and Brent White’s editing of Ghostbusters (2016) is how they jilt the timing of every single word spoken by everyone. I have no idea which lines in Ghostbusters (2016) were actually written down because everything is made to sound like an adlib, even the jokes that actually are. Even jokes that are conceptually funny have nowhere to land since the actors seem to be in charge of the timing independent of the editor and director. The film opens with Zach Woods (Gabe from The Office) riffing on P.T. Barnum and Irish people off the top of his head and it just sounds off the cuff. You can imagine everyone on the set having a grand ol’ time, probably laughing so hard they forgot to say “cut” (Ohmygod that’s hilarious. What are we doing here anyway? Is the pizza here yet?).

But you know when you’re sitting at a table with one friend and a bunch of other people you just met, and they’re all laughing hysterically at each other’s jokes and you’re smiling but you just don’t quite get it? Watching Ghostbusters (2016) is like sitting in on someone else’s fun. In order for those jokes to go from appearing funny to actually making you laugh, you have to become personally involved in them somehow, which can happen if a serious lull or clever hard edit subverts your expectations. But Ghostbusters (2016) never stops being a laugh-a-minute riot in its own head long enough to include you in the timing. It features presumably funny people prattling on a whim like they’re all having a good time on the soundstage, but it just looks foolish to us looking in, like a video recording of someone else’s play-pretend. From the outside, it just seems cheap and embarrassing, like a feature-length version of the “everything-proof” shield.

The effect is inflamed by the cinematic style, which loves switching between close-ups of the person talking with the color contrast so high that everyone looks blushed and candied. It then rockets back to the next quip: is there a 35-hour cut of this film with all the jokes in, and the theatrical release is just a trimmed version of that? Ghostbusters (2016) is filmed crisply, to the point of fakery, with images that read more as a sketch show than a dark A-list comedy. It’s jam-packed with jokes, and yet somehow contains no humor.

For that matter, what is the “dark” in dark comedy? It is the infinitude of uncertain moments: a pause before a cutting smile, a washed-out glance of contempt before a reluctant reply. The darkness is not in the type of things that a film finds funny, but in the way that it approaches anything. In other words, darkness in terms of comedy has nothing to do with the material. The original Ghostbusters was explicitly nonchalant about the way it approached ghosts, as though they were a plausible pest to be dealt with severely but unironically. It was not in the elements of horror but in the human drama that it unveiled all that insightful sadism that made it so frisky and darksome.

Ghostbusters (2016) can never be dark because it is always moving and talking. Despite it taking scary things with a silly tone, nothing in the film is actually sarcastic. The jokes play as straight standup and cut swiftly and remorselessly to the next bit, often across town. Nothing incubates, or rests in your mind long enough to be funny. A jump cut itself should be funny by a contrast in space timed precisely within a lull as a punchline comes to rest (in the original film, a scene of townsfolk praising the Ghostbusters as stalwart heroes as they enter a ghost-infested building cuts hard to their struggle to climb a flight of stairs). A piece of dialogue doesn’t even have to be a joke to be funny, but just a normal reaction to something crazy (a maid in the original film responds to having her cart of cleaning supplies mistaken for a ghost and blown up with a pause and a reply, hilariously mundane, “What the hell are you doin’?”). But this new film cuts out of necessity, without any art or style, while the straight, literal words are the only things that the film believes could be comedic (and remember that these are all adlibbed). White edits one line to the next like he had to cut out all of the downtime – it feels like the TV versions of shows that have to cut out dialogue pauses to make room for commercials.

But that embarrassing, unkempt tone is Feig’s fault, not the editor’s or the cast’s, who are as much to blame as a classroom of unsupervised children. Adlibs only work when the comedy is about everyday life, things that can be riffed on and demonstrated by the actor at their discretion: a rant on breakfast cereal, losing your train of thought, playing Super Mario Kart, complaining about pooping, and so on animalistically exploring the comic human hindbrain à la Judd Apatow or the Coen Brothers. Intelligent science and social satire cannot be played this way – it must be planned. And Feig decided not to plan it. Only human nature can stand to be not thought out very well, and Ghostbusters (2016) contains none of it. Just watch the small scene of the Ghostbusters meeting with the mayor, and you may see how every second is filmed with the sterile laboratory sheen of a pizza commercial and every line flummoxes through the standards of comic timing that even late-night shows manage to grasp more finely.

Perhaps Feig had no time to plan out the jokes, being too busy trying to capture all those sponsored products in crisp 4K ultra-ultra HD. I expect a little product placement from Sony at this point: it’s so predictable that I won’t gripe too much on it, as I wouldn’t complain about the urine smell in a subway tunnel. But distractedly plastering the screen with Blu-Ray, Coke, or Papa John’s is one thing, while stopping the movie to drop the names of other films and quote them is something else. Perhaps even from your seat you heard my eyes rolling when someone says, “Say hello to my little friend,” before firing a laser shotgun at a cartoon. The Blu-Ray box is so stuffed with coupons it suggests a new form of film entertainment, not a movie so much as a motivated feature-length sponsorship where the film is just the hook and the real intention of the art is beyond the fourth wall, on the phone with the pizza company during the end credits (after three or four sequel teasers, naturally). The “Ghostbusters” part of Ghostbusters (2016) is like the story of a porno film, as Sony seems to envision it: necessary but not important. Perhaps this film is what happens when you cross the streams?

Since the casting is such a scabby talking point with the film I don’t think I can avoid even a partial personnel dissection. At least it’s the one part that’s not all bad. Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones seem most within an appropriate mindset to give the film what it craves: a little understatement. Jones particularly, when acting legitimately scared or surprised, surpasses her costars as an actor with esteem, which in this case I define as: the ability to put aside Leslie Jones for a bit to play a character in a movie. Unlike everyone else, she is occasionally willing to wipe from her face the insufferable half-smirk of knowing that she’s just an actor in a stupid comedy and take a scene seriously. For most films, this is so implied that you’d never dream of mentioning it, but Ghostbusters (2016) challenges the notion of being a film, just by being so incompetent while acting so darn pleased with itself.

Kate McKinnon could be the patron saint of being pleased with yourself. She waltzes around with zany wide eyes and an evil scientist’s lack of awareness (and that interminable smirk! Jones just wants to smack her and so do I). The wacky scientist character might have been funny if McKinnon wasn’t so abrupt, like she has to keep up some kind of insult quota before the scene can move on. Her entire character (going back to the editing again) feels like an insert shot. She’d be perfect in a Skittles commercial. More than anyone else, she seems unwilling to be written a character that is not just a sum of tiny adlibs, interjected whenever she pleases. She is, in a person, the unsettling feeling of all the scenes in Ghostbusters (2016) – of the way that characters hastily end a bracketed span of adlibs as the camera jolts to a new scripted conversation somewhere else (how the mayor’s office cuts to the ladies on the street, both ends of the cut in mid-sentence). It’s like they know they’re in a movie, under the eye of Sony the terrible few could endure.

That leaves only Melissa McCarthy, who is desperately inappropriate to be in a Ghostbusters movie, though she is the most representative of this one. She bounces around the film, as “an impression of a deflating balloon” (their words, not mine). She knows only how to yell through her teeth and fall down. Her one face is a lip-curling smirk that would frighten a baby. Her adlibs are also the ones that are most logically misdirected, as when she spews to the villain, “Come get your virginity out of the lost and found.” Losing your virginity is different than losing other things, right? I mean, that’s when editing your ideas really comes in handy. Someone should tell them.

Oh, it all devolves into a disposable action scene of course, played without even an attempt at comedy. Somehow these dweeby ladies clopping around for ninety previous minutes miraculously gain the ability to stunt flip and combat roll while firing proton ejaculations at ghost monsters (rendered so poorly, I might add, that they would not look disparate in that Haunted Mansion movie with Eddie Murphy). Yes, sorry for the sexual language but the film makes several passes at maleness with the backpack lasers: one slur at impotence early on (which is a little funny) and a petty finale that must be the most passionately hateful dismissal of a fanbase in movie history, in which the ladies defeat a giant incarnation of the original film’s logo by shooting it in the crotch.

The reason we never had the anticipated “Ghostbusters 3” was that Bill Murray didn’t want to do it, hung up on the contract or something. It seemed curious to me that the favorite Ghostbuster was the one to ruin the magic, until I thought about it a bit. Ghostbusters is a series in which things that try least to be funny are most funny, and so it could also be a world in which the character least enthusiastic about the universe has the most currency within it. This was Murray’s realm, the turf of the sad clown. If he ever got excited enough to make a third movie, he retroactively could not have been the sardonic sourpuss that made us want it in the first place. Without knowing this, production on Ghostbusters (2016) was too enthusiastic to be appropriate to its series, too enthusiastic even to be funny, helmed by a director who turned the set into a woozy comedy night starring a cast that less inspired memories of Murray than of a new nightmare: an all-girl reincarnation of The Wiggles singing anthems to the Womb Tang Clan in time to their own farts.

The anxious attempt at reverse sexism casts Chris Hemsworth as the anti-Murray: a tight-cheeked idiot beefcake, a “Clark Kent stripper-gram” that gets Wiig aroused in a lot of awkward early scenes. It’s a spectacular misfire though, since Hemsworth is by far the funniest person in the film, being the one most committed to acting funny in a way that is not noisy, gender-specific mayhem unapologetically based on the comedy of someone named Chris Hemsworth. Meanwhile, all the girls have been roped into publicly admitting that acting stupid and falling down is gender-specific. Someone should have told Feig that if you cast the funny himbo as totally likeable, no one is going to notice the attempt at intellectual castration, especially not if the symbolic gender upheaval is represented by four dimwits blathering about beauty products and falling down. They’re even lashed into responding in the film to the movie trailer’s poor reception on YouTube by reading and heckling online comments. There could be no greater evidence for how wrongly Sony defines feminism than this use of its name: as a smokescreen to hide the film from view with crude generalities, snide hatred, and pretend politics. It reminds me of when Roland Emmerich named the stupid mayor and his assistant “Ebert” and “Gene” in the 1998 Godzilla, when the famed critics kept panning his movies. Back then, we might have realized that a good film is the best possible critical argument. Someone should tell Sony that it’s the best feminist argument too.

Cast & Crew

Director

Paul Feig

Writer

Katie Dippold

Paul Feig

Main Cast
Dr. Abigail "Abby" Yates Melissa McCarthy
Dr. Erin Gilbert Kristen Wiig
Dr. Jillian "Holtz" Holtzmann Kate McKinnon
Patricia "Patty" Tolan Leslie Jones
Kevin Beckman Chris Hemsworth
Rowan North Neil Casey
Mayor Bradley Andy Garcia

Official Trailer

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