Like Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is perhaps too high-concept for its own good. The remake’s opening, of a guided tour through a haunted mansion that concludes after hours with the guide (Zach Woods) being assaulted by a true paranormal spirit, could pass as a sequence straight out of a horror film, despite the fact that the guide spends his day telling tourists about some of the house’s amusing contemporary innovations, such as “an Irish-proof security fence.” The scene effectively introduces the various tones of the entire film, but it also shows how sudden and disorienting the lurches between improv comedy and jump-scare horror can be.
Ghostbusters is at its best when it’s attuned to micro-scale interactions. In the same amount of time it takes to build up to a spirit leaping out of something and coating unlucky mortals in ectoplasm, the film effectively delineates the clashing personalities of estranged friends Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). From the start, it’s easy to see why Erin, a tenure-bound professor who dresses conservatively and conducts herself with serious calm to impress colleagues, drifted apart from Abby, who still clings to her youthful fascination with ghosts and has the unkempt life of the obsessive to prove it. Even when the two finally confront a spirit, the scene’s payoff is less their paranormal experience than the giddiness they feel over it, the shared relief that their entire lives have been vindicated.
Fleet character introduction dominates Ghostbusters’s first act, and it’s remarkable how quickly the cast puts forward fully realized characters. Abby’s engineer, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), looks at everything with a combination of disdain, sardonic dismissal, and genuine interest, a contradictory assortment of moods held together by her wry squints and wolfish smiles. Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA worker, joins the scientific trio after spotting a ghost on her shift and immediately balances out her new co-workers’ eggheaded behavior with much-needed everyday knowhow.
Once the film shifts into ghostbusting in earnest, however, the pacing of the narrative grinds to a halt. A sequence of the quartet publicly stopping a ghost that terrorizes a heavy metal concert would have felt crusty and awkward in the 1990s, and a cameo by Ozzy Osbourne only makes the whole thing feel even more obsolete. Even worse are the pandering cameos by the original film’s actors, as the scenes are conspicuous for the pauses intended to invite the audience’s applause. Dialogue also slows to a crawl, with the amusing leftfield improv and character-based humor that highlights the start of the film giving way to slogs of pseudoscientific jargon that effectively reduce Wiig and McCarthy’s characters to delivery systems for the story’s exposition.
The only upshot of this development is that it gives the rest of the cast freer rein to shine. McKinnon has to field just as much techno-babble as the film’s two marquee stars, but she puts a puckish spin on it that renders Holtzmann’s meatiest dialogue as the feverishly obsessive rants of a particularly gifted problem child. Meanwhile, Jones redeems Ernie Hudson’s role from the original Ghostbusters, asserting her comic chops while also building a character who may lack graduate degrees, but has more than enough intelligence to hang with three experts. Not to be outdone, though, is Chris Hemsworth, who plays the Ghostbusters’s dim-witted secretary, Kevin, a man too stupid and self-obsessed to even answer phones, but who’s kept around as eye candy; the actor is a surprisingly deft comedian, both in his tripping physical movements and his self-effacing airheadedness.
It’s impossible to separate this remake from the outlandishly stupid outrage that erupted over its very existence, which resulted in reshoots that added dialogue at the expense of Internet trolls as a nod to the ginned-up controversy. But the film’s core conflict already contrasts a sharp gender division: The Ghostbusters’s primary antagonist, Rowan (Neil Casey), isn’t so different from Erin and Abby. This tormented loner also faced a lifetime of ridicule for his belief in ghosts and other eccentricities, but where Erin and Abby find constructive, validating outlets for their beliefs, he desires to use their research to open a portal to the spirit world in order to wreak havoc on Earth in an apocalyptic fit of petulant revenge.
Much of Ghostbusters’s final act feels like a rip-off of the original, only with better special effects. There’s a mayor, played by Andy Garcia, who publicly denies paranormal activity in a desperate bid to maintain calm; a giant conflagration of released souls; and a massive showdown that wouldn’t be out of a place in a full-on blockbuster action tent pole. It’s an entertaining capper to the film, but it feels too much like a carbon copy of the original’s climax. Yet the sharpest point of diversion between both films is in that focus on friendship and positivity. When it’s good, this new Ghostbusters is funny, driven, sometimes even a bit scary. But most surprising of all is how touching it can be when its characters realize their lifelong dreams, even if it comes in the form of being coated in the vomit of a long-dead murderer.