Ghostbusters (2016): The Problem with Fake Feminism

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 typical studio comedy, stuffed with product placement, under-written to the point of seeming improvised. A movie with humor that makes you cringe is bad enough, but 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 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 fart humor and one-liners 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 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. Alex Garland's Annihilation is the perfect example to illustrate this issue. That's a smart movie, starring four women in STEM, and no one advocated for it because no one told them to. That's where we are right now.

Ghostbusters (2016) is an embarrassing movie. It’s a movie that forces 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 marketing 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, as though the quality never mattered in the first place, which is what Sony hoped we would do. We had no ability to wonder if the movie was funny or well-made because we were too focused on what the movie's corporate backers wanted us to be, which was anything that could be our fault rather than there's. The way the click-bait media machine created this climate using Sony's narrative, cherry-picked from the storm of complaints, is well-documented. I'm not going to talk about that anymore. I urge you to do what Sony would prefer you not: go research this issue on your own and form your own opinion. Any movie, even Ghostbusters (2016), has people working on it who deserve to have their art judged as art and not as a product; it's for them, and in spite of Sony, that I'm moving this review away from this cloud of reception spectacle and ire. Out of respect for the medium and the work of talented people working inside a huge money machine, I'm now going to pay Ghostbusters (2016) the first sign of respect I would give to any movie, which is: to judge it honestly. I'm going to be very critical, but the criticism is of a movie, not a company logo.

Not being very funny is a hot topic all on its own because comedy is so subjective. What you find funny is very personal. But Ghostbusters (2016) does something that guarantees I won't find it funny, even one time; it does my least favorite thing any movie could do, because it's so embarrassing for the audience, and for the good people who are caught up in the whirlwind of the film. It never stops telling you how funny it thinks it is. And that's the worst thing.

Even if you giggle at some of it, which you’re allowed to do, the movie never stops praising itself long enough to become charming; it's like a drunken relative at a family reunion that doesn't realize no one wants to see them do that goofy dance again. The way the film sets up laughs is boorish, like they’re all drive-by remarks with no buildup or payoff. The first truly incompetent thing about Paul Feig’s direction and Brent White’s editing of Ghostbusters (2016) is how they jilt the timing of everyone's words. 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 high-larious! Is the pizza here yet?").

Watching this movie reminded me of frat parties my roommate dragged me to a couple of times in college, where I sat at a table with one friend and a bunch of other people I just met, all getting increasingly drunk, all laughing hysterically at each other’s jokes. I smiled at those jokes because it was a funny situation for someone, but they didn't connect with me to make me really laugh: real comedy needs that connection to you, which requires the comedian to have little enough ego to include you in the fun. Watching Ghostbusters (2016) is a surreal experience because it's not just unfunny: it's like sitting in on someone else’s fun.

Like at those parties, 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, made more so by the uproar and the marketing, which just ends up being the company's version of the “everything-proof” shield.

The effect is inflamed by the director and cinematographer, who seem to love switching between close-ups of the people 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 an A-list comedy. It’s jam-packed with jokes, and yet somehow contains no set-ups. Lines get dropped constantly from the original film ("Mass hysteria") but have no context to live in and become funny on the new movie's own terms. The whole thing just seems along for its own ride.

I don't think Ghostbusters (2016) should be called "bad" because it's different than the original. But as a remake rather than a sequel, it subjects itself to that comparison by not understanding its original, and not making much of itself by contrast. Ultimately, the best way I can think of to describe why the new film isn't funny, is to go just a little bit into why the original is. Again, I don't think this comparison is all that matters, but it's a small point I want to make.

Comedy is about a lot of things, but for Ghostbusters (1984) it's mostly about subversion. A character's pause before a cutting smile, or a washed-out glance of contempt before a reluctant sign of approval, gives their relationship a wit that's fueled by our expectations. It becomes funny not from the types of things that those comedians found funny, but from the way they approached anything, even the simplest things. 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. Taking them lightly resulted in that airy sadism that Murray wears everywhere, like underwear he's worn so long there's no point in changing it anymore. We become engaged in the movie's tension because of this relationship to danger that it establishes so well: characters don't take things seriously, not because they aren't serious things, but because the characters don't care. The difference between shrugging off world-ending threats and reluctantly doing something about them anyway and doing karate flips and quoting Scarface in time to big action music is simple. The difference is creating comedy from character, or not.

Ghostbusters (2016) can never handle being about character because it is always moving and talking between bits; no one remains totally consistent between any of them. A great example is Erin, the Kristen Wiig character. That action hero persona at the end of the movie comes out of nowhere; all we really see is that she's socially awkward, brainy, and conscientious compared to the others. The best part of these characters was not their capacity to become action heroes. This doesn't fit anyone's ambitions except the writer's.

The comedy that this cast has done in the past should have informed the script to tap into their ability to understate way more, since understatement is how something that appears to be a big action movie concept can become funny in the context of a comedy. Otherwise, it's just a lame version of those action movies, with comedians badly (very badly) mapped onto the action, quoting movie lines seriously ("Say hello to my little friend") sometimes, other times being totally silly, but at no time finding the right wit for sarcasm or understatement.

The jokes play like standup in Ghostbusters (2016) but without the need to pause for the audience's laughter, cutting swiftly and remorselessly to the next bit. Nothing incubates, or rests in your mind long enough to be funny. A jump cut itself should be funny by a contrast in space; a great editor can time it precisely within a lull, as a punchline settles down (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. 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 all seem 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.

This unkempt feeling that the dialogue has is ultimately Feig’s doing, 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, Gilligan's Island, Voltron decoder rings, taking a dump, Steven Spielberg, or whatever works in a Linklater movie, or during downtime  in a Coen brothers movie. But even then, they're probably still written down beforehand. Human nature comedy can be improvised but science comedy can't, and the problem with the humor in Ghostbusters (2016) is really not that it's adlibbed but that it contains no human nature to adlib. Just watch the small scene of the Ghostbusters meeting with the dean (Steve Higgins) as the comic himself does his own out-of-place bits for as long as Feig is willing to let him, or when they confront the mayor (Andy Garcia) in his office. These scenes are examples of 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 clearly. The pauses are awkward. The jokes never land.

Product placement, a necessity of modern blockbusters perhaps, is taken to such a degree in Ghostbusters (2016) that those awkward comedy routines seem even worse: it's like the comedy was sold out for the products, as opposed to the other way around. It's so expected from Sony that I can't really gripe too much on the products, 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. The “Ghostbusters” part of Ghostbusters (2016) is like the story of a porno film, as Feig seems to envision it: necessary but not important.

Since the casting is such a scabby talking point with the film I don’t think I can avoid 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, which is a little understatement. Jones particularly, when acting legitimately scared or surprised, surpasses her costars as an actor with esteem. What do I mean by that? I mean that she has the ability to put aside Leslie Jones for a bit to play a character in a movie, like she's taking her job seriously. 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 treat a scene like it's real. 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 also acting so darn pleased with itself.

Kate McKinnon in this movie 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. McKinnon is its most trusted minion, and every line out of her mouth is so cringey that it made me carsick.

That leaves only Melissa McCarthy, whose comedy style is so inappropriate for the Ghostbusters franchise that she becomes the most representative of this version of it. 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 might frighten a baby but I can't even imagine who would laugh at it. Her adlibs are also the ones that are most logically misdirected, really damning evidence that Feig and White were just playing around with these people and not thinking about what they were doing. Here's a glaring example. At one point, she spews to the villain, “Come get your virginity out of the lost and found!” Think about that joke for a second. She's trying to say that the villain, and also implicitly that fans of Ghostbusters, have never slept with a woman. But she didn't stop to think that losing your virginity, meaning it's in the lost and found, and isn't the same as losing, say, your manhood. "Come get your manhood out of the lost and found!" See, that joke makes sense. This is when editing your movie and writing the script down first really comes in handy.

As if it couldn't get more pleased with itself, these weak comedy scenarios finally devolve into a disposable action scene, played without even an attempt at comedy, as though the comedy all along was just the movie's way of trying to make us as pleased with it as it is with itself. When Holtzmann pleases herself by saying everything with her jaw slack ("Let's go" becomes "Let's gah"), is anyone being pleased right along with her? Honestly, I think some people were, despite the scene making no sense in the context of the movie. 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 penises with the backpack lasers: one slur at impotence early on during the testing phase (which is almost 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 on his own barely-playful nihilism. 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 where a fart and a feminist anthem and a Twinkie commercial can all become the same entity just because the company that made it told us so.

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 the only character besides Jones who, ever so often, is willing to turn off the noisy, gender-specific mayhem clumsily based on the comedy of someone named Chris Hemsworth and say something with a little comic sincerity. While these poor actors have been roped into publicly admitting that acting stupid and falling down is gender-specific, you wouldn't be wrong to think of the female characters in the original Ghostbusters, an independent single cellist living on Central Park West played by Sigourney Weaver and a sassy secretary played with cutting sincerity by Annie Potts. Now think back to the new one, whose actresses are 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, wrapped up in product placement, timed to a fart, and unleashed on a fanbase whose chosen franchise has never deserved to be put down. 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.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Paul Feig

Katie Dippold

Paul Feig

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

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