Monday, August 15, 2016

Ghostbusters / *** (2016)

Dialogue was one of the key strengths of Ivan Reitman’s immortal “Ghostbusters,” and when contrasted against special effects that were destined to become dated paradigms of the past it resisted the contextual erosion of most mainstream comedies. To hear the characters discuss their problems now is to sense two certainties: 1) the thorough skill of its writer, Harold Ramis, who was perceptive of human behavior beyond the momentary jabs of a punchline; and 2) the realization that the characters were responding to the material exactly as they needed to, regardless of how funny or whimsical their approach may not always appear. That’s because they were smart and had the foresight to explain themselves in the logical circles they routinely found themselves trapped in, where most would ordinarily be reduced to shrieks of terror or displaced from coherence. No one – least of all the Ghostbusters themselves – knew exactly how to regard a world where they were being consciously haunted by a series of bizarre specters, but to lose your sense of humor in the thick of all things weird might have been more damaging to one’s focus. No satisfactory resolution would have occurred with this sort of premise if those at the helm weren’t driving through it with a keen sense of awareness.

Likewise, any remake of this idea would never have reached passable standard had it disconnected from the primary objective. Though special effects have come rather far in the 30-something years since the original installment became an essential moviegoeing commodity, they ultimately mean little in a story where everyone would have no choice but to regard their plight with some semblance of biting sarcasm. Once an audience is submissive to this sentiment, they begin to approach the new “Ghostbusters” from the perspective that is necessary: as a lighthearted jolt in world built on absurd fantasy. The bad news is that there are only so many odds of lightning striking in the same place twice, but the blow is a rather soft one. However you choose to approach Paul Feig’s risky reboot, there is no denying the likability of the characters or the wisdom in their words. They have lived the sorts of lives that gives them an infectious energy, especially as they are being chased down halls and through corridors by spirits that have the primary motive of causing harm or terror.

There is a certain cynicism that bleeds effectively into the plot. The primary character is Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), an eager scientist whose professional aspirations at a university are thrown into question when her former colleague and friend Abby (Melissa McCarthy) publishes an old collaboration on paranormal studies without her permission. Thought by most to be a sketchy science, Erin – previously passionate about the concept – has come around to seeing her early contributions as amateurish and insane, and clearly not the source of success in a world driven by exactness. Why did she become involved in them so long ago? She relays a vivid memory from her childhood in which an old lady who died next door kept revisiting her room over the course of two years, and while others bullied and teased “crazy Erin” throughout school, Abby was the only friend of hers that believed she was telling the truth. Together they partook in a research project that amounts to a variety of cockamamie discussions about ley lines and hidden energy force fields, and though the theories have remained part of a persistent passion for some, Erin is reluctant to become once again involved with something that will likely only amount to dead-end studies or easy dismissals.

Abby and Erin’s arguments over the book’s release are shelved, however, when calls begin coming in that suggest the presence of ghostly apparitions. A Victorian woman in an old house in Manhattan appears from beyond, floating up the stairs from a haunted basement. Underneath the New York subways, a ticket tacker (Leslie Jones) spots a spectral being hovering above the tracks, clearly a victim of death row’s Electric Chair. As these sightings are sought and studied, the whacky inventions of Holtzmann (Kate MicKinnon) place the women in a variety of eccentric scenarios – most of them for the purpose of punchlines – until their work comes to the attention of a strange wanderer named Rowan (Neil Casey), who always seems to be nearby when the ghosts are sighted. All of this must inevitably tie in to a grander plot in which electronic gadgets are placed throughout the city in order to attract ghosts towards a single point, where Rowan plans to open a vast portal between worlds and assume the role of leader of the supernatural.

And so on and so forth. The screenplay by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig embellishes the material in a throng of circular details that require open-ended discussions about energies and scientific theories, but the movie cares nothing about them – because like its great predecessor, the film knows it has no hope of trying to explain away physical inconsistencies. But their characters – Erin, Abby, Holtzmann and Patty – gaze into the ensuing chaos with some level of persistent whimsy, as if taking on the assumption that they are merely in a dream version of reality instead of one that legitimately threatens the existence of others. That leads to some exchanges so bitingly precise that they earn laughs simply by seeming so natural to individual situations. Fear does not birth pessimism for these women, only an inkling to push the boundaries of their efforts and the sharpness of their observations. By casting these particular actresses, furthermore, Feig – who also helmed “Bridesmaids” and “Spy” – shows he is consistently reliable in pairing stars who bounce undeniable chemistry off one another. McCarthy remains remarkably consistent as Abby, while Wiig has a skill for always seeming like she has stumbled awkwardly into the wrong situations. And Leslie Jones, relatively new to this medium, excels as a spectator-turned-teammate who relies on biting comical soundbites to react to the looming terror around her.

But did “Ghostbusters” ever really need a remake, even one that mirrored the spirit and good nature of its great ancestor? Not really. There is a sense while one contemplates the story that it was simply drafted out of a desire to get the material onto the screen, without persuasive details or a story progression that would have made things interesting beyond the concept of ghosts floating through a big city. Many of the twists, furthermore, take few strides in being distinctive from early endeavors, and the climax virtually mirrors that of the first, in which a gigantic terror destroys the city as if playing understudy to Godzilla. The only significant difference, you might say, is how the running commentary changes when you observe that sort of destruction across opposing eras. In the thick of the Regan years, the response was less intrusive and more about quirky personality types at the driver’s seat of the discussion. They were insightful as well as funny. None of the women in this modern retelling quite reach that level of reasoning, and indeed their interactions mirror the more momentary sentiments of modern comedies, where everything is usually about awkward encounters and embarrassing situations. But they are funny, enjoyable and beaming with positive energy, and nowadays that’s more than enough to warrant the excursion.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Comedy/Fantasy (US); 2016; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 116 Minutes

Kristen Wiig: Erin Gilbert
Melissa McCarthy: Abby Yates
Kate MicKinnon: Jillian Holtzmann
Leslie Jones: Patty Tolan
Neil Casey: Rowan North
Chris Hemsworth: Kevin
Andy Garcia: Mayor Bradley
Cecily Strong: Jennifer Lynch

Produced by
Dan Aykroyd, Ali Bell, Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, Michele Imperato, Joe Medjuck, Amy Pascal, James Paul, Alex Plapinger, Tom Pollock, Eric Reich, Ivan Reitman and Ben WaisbrenDirected by Paul Feig; Written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig; based on “Ghostbusters” by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis

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