REVIEW: Ghostbusters (2016)

Like The Simpsons or Parks and Recreation? That’s the kind of comedy in this film, so you should see Ghostbusters in theaters. Researching gender studies? Get up now and go see it in theaters. Otherwise, skip it until it’s on Netflix.

I had said I was going to see Ghostbusters (2016)–and while it has numerous flaws, I’m glad I went to theaters to see it.

The film, starring a female quartet, is an overly long movie with the kind of awkward humor, cartoonish characters, and over-the-top but bloodless slapstick frequent in some network sitcoms. While the plot rushes to get to ghost battles, in the process also rushing through characterization such that even the villain is monologuing about his motivations directly to the audience, it is also such a long slog due to a failure to edit down what could be hilarious jokes that drag too long. Directed by Paul Feig and co-written by Feig and Katie Dippold, the film treats the viewers as if they are not smart enough to understand the joke that is obviously on screen, preferring to have characters explain the joke in awkward ad libbed dialogue rather than letting a stunned silence linger for the funny moments that appear. Many jokes are obviously added in post-production with ADR, undermining a lot of the comedic energy when characters off-screen are making half-ways funny lines instead of ad-libbing them on set.

None of this copious amount of criticism, however, is to say the film lacks entertainment or is unbearable. The story has the seeds for excellent narratives about sexism in academia, has female characters in main and supporting roles including in government (with Cecily Strong as the mayor’s assistant looking and dressing  like Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson Karen Finney), and gendered differences in how men and women react to feeling isolated and ostracized. All of that could make this a well-done story with feminist arguments, and which would have benefited from better editing and more varied designs to the ghosts and in the battle scenes. But none of it is realized enough to satisfy what I wanted to see in the film.

If this kind of comedy and analysis of gender appeals to you, as most of it did for me, definitely see it in theaters; otherwise, wait to rent or stream it, as it is an entertaining film worth at least one viewing. This is an important film to see, because so few action movies in theaters are centered around predominantly female protagonists with a thirst for knowledge and a desire to collaborate to solve problem–but the film’s many missed opportunities make it unsatisfying.

It’s pretty bad when a film makes me identify with the straight man because I find the humorous characters to be long-winded and annoying. When Kristen Wiig’s Dr. Erin Gilbert complains “I get it!” about an unfunny gag, she no longer functions as the stick in the mud but now as an audience surrogate for how poorly timed overly long jokes linger. Great jokes lose their impact because of how long the dialogue is.

Let me give an example of how poorly handled the editing and gag-writing is: when Kate McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzman interrupts a serious moment for a cliche joke, disrupting the silence by munching on loud Pringles chips, I don’t need to hear Wiig’s character say, “Do you really have to do that?” I get the joke. Holtzman then replies (misquoting), “You try to turn down these salty parabolas,” the joke falls flat–because the funny part is “salty parabolas,” a clever way to refer to a chip and which characterizes Holtzman as having a creative way of combining mathematics with everyday life (but an inaccurate word choice of “parabolas,” as some other nerd online already corrected before I could).

So, edit down the line: instead of having Holtzman being a jerk and disrupting a scientific investigation to selfishly eat, start building her relationship with Erin earlier and have her offer a chip and say, “Salty parabola?” because that two-word phrase is the only funny part in that moment. There–now you have developed Holtzman’s character to show she is self-aware and is open to trying to befriend other people, rather than remaining an obnoxious one-note whacky sidekick as she is for most of the film, and you get to condense the joke to something punchier. And if I have to over-intellectualize this joke to revise it this thoroughly, then the joke had significant problems to begin with.

Nevertheless, there are funny gags, much of them mocking hyper-masculine culture and toxic masculinity, even a gag as immature as slamming a Proton beam at a male ghost’s groin or a funny throwaway line by Homeland Security officers that the Ghostbuster’s siren has an “un-American” sound to it.

Still, this kind of humor has characters reaching Parks and Recreation’s Andy Dwyer levels of stupid, like just about every line coming from Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin. He is hired as a secretary because he is the only applicant, and, out of a disappointing choice for characterizing Wiig’s Erin, serving as eye-candy that makes her act sex-starved and foolish. The character is so naive, hipster, and clownish that the humor around him may seem hit or miss–yet I laughed at a lot of the jokes around him more than other characters. When he’s introduced, Kevin explains his glasses have no lenses so that he doesn’t have to clean them–which was a funny joke, capped off with him scratching under his eye through the lensless frames. But jokes around even Kevin suffer from poor editing: at one point, the Ghostbusters tell him not to listen in on their conversation, so he covers his eyes–which is a great visual gag that is then ruined by the characters saying, “And he’s covering his eyes.” No, no, I get the synesthetic joke, I can see what is happening–you don’t need to explain that joke to me. The movie also has to explain to me that Wiig’s Erin mistakes glass windows at a restaurant as sliding doors–which I could tell because I can see that, and I don’t need the film to explain it to me.

While the plot lacks focus until halfway through the film, it does have an untapped potential regarding differences in how responses to bullying and ostracism contrast along gendered lines in current United States pop culture.   Wiig’s Erin is introduced as overly cautious about her path towards tenure, even commenting that she has to wear uncomfortable shoes and make her attire as unsexual as possible–then is still criticized by her tenure committee chair about her attire, her credentials, her degree, her recommendations, and, what finally gets her kicked out of the tenure-track position, her paranormal investigations. The film raises all of these points about academia in its first 30 minutes, only to ignore them for the remainder of the film, albeit still with ample but subtle attention to sexism in employment, pop culture, and everyday interactions.

The villain Rowan, played by Neil Casey, is serviceable: he’s not a complex antagonist, his motivation born largely out of being called creepy, isolating himself, and being socially awkward. It’s unfortunately a sad portrayal of how a lot of us ostracize asocial introverts, and Rowan is shown as a victim of toxic masculinity, all of which is important for this film, with a large female cast and whose characters are repeatedly responding against misogyny, to show how men too are harmed by this cultural climate.

So it’s disappointing that the male villain’s role as a dark mirror to the female quartet is not fully realized. When the team confronts the suicidal Rowan to remind him all that there is good about life, Melissa McCarthy’s Dr. Abby Yates and Leslie Johns’s Patty Tolan stumble to think of examples beyond soup and salad. This joke does not land with me. These four Ghostbusters have a thirst for knowledge, whether in the paranormal, physics, or local history–and after some pretty decent comedy, the best joke that can be offered is about side dishes you find on a diner menu? Oh, and their words don’t matter to Rowan anyway, as he kills himself to achieve his goals. The suicide is not treated as a joke itself, and Rowan, as the villain, of course comes back as a ghost to demolish New York. But after moments showing how well these four Ghostbusters get along, and thankfully averting some cliche third-act disagreement that could have happened between McCarthy and Wiig’s characters, it is frustrating that a moment of trying to talk down the suicidal, bullied Rowan is treated as a joke–and not even a funny one or a darkly comedic one.

Much as this opportunity to address such a problem is missed, so too is the film largely risk-averse–not in terms of having a predominantly female cast, which should be no risk at all but is still treated as one thanks to systematic sexism in the film industry and the loud whining of misogynistic trolls online (a set of buffoons that, in a lot of meta-humor, Ghostbusters mocks so well throughout). Rather, the lack of risk is in bucking trends in current blockbuster mainstream films visually: the ghosts’ designs lack variety in shape, size, and color, even in much of the climax when the opening of a spiritual vortex allows apparitions to invade Manhattan.

And with a PG-13 in the year 2016, as opposed to what was a grittier PG-13 at the time of the original Ghostbusters, the film has awkward censorship (“Forget this” instead of how most of us would react to a ghost attacking us, which is “Fuck this”). The PG-13 rating in 2016 also means this film is rather cartoonish in how easily characters get knocked around, defenestrated, and even electrocuted without showing the reality of such injuries–no blood, no glass-encrusted corpse, and no charred body. I’m not desiring to see such images in this kind of a film, especially given my own preferences when it comes to dark comedy. But I also think at least an acknowledgement of such violence would make the film’s slapstick create a darker tone suitable for a film about, you know, creepy, bloodthirsty ghosts from the other side.

While I am critical of this film, for what it offers in a much more exciting second-half, for having sufficient if underwhelming ghost designs and some funny jokes in-between ad libs that go on too long, the film is worth streaming when it gets released online, and maybe as a rental. But from a gender studies perspective, I think it is a film worth seeing in theaters.

Ghostbusters is a decent comedy-action-sci-fi film, and it continues a mythology that shows female characters in main and supporting action roles. While I wish the love of science and knowledge the women in the film demonstrate was as exuberant as what is shown in a film like Big Hero 6, this is a necessary movie in response to a failure, from film executives to audiences, to demand films show the reality of how diverse this world really is when it comes to gender.

As such, when there are film reviews that opine that this film will not change the minds of misogynists, tough: it’s not the job of a goddamn movie to change the minds of bigots–it is up to those idiots to change their own minds. That kind of an argument is as asinine as blaming Hillary Clinton for a bigot potentially getting elected President–and only a moron would make that kind of a claim.


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