Ghostbusters (2016)


“Ghostbusters,” the reboot of an obscure Harold Ramis/Ernie Hudson comedy from the 1980s, is about three scientists and a subway worker who learn that New York City is on the verge of being overrun by mean ghosts and must take action to prevent this. Like almost every reboot or remake of a good movie, it pales in comparison to the original. Unlike many, it’s funny and high-spirited enough to stand on its own. Indeed, it does best when it’s not using forced cameos or callbacks to remind us of the first movie, but instead letting these four new characters do their thing.

The new Ghostbusters don’t have exact counterparts to the original bunch — a wise choice, since no one is Bill Murray. (Even Bill Murray is no longer Bill Murray, if his dire cameo in this is any indication.) Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a prim, respectable science professor at Columbia University who disavows the ghost book she once wrote with a colleague. That colleague, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), is still investigating paranormal phenomena, and is now teamed up with Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a genius-level science nerd who reminds you of Egon Spengler for but a moment before she establishes her own ultra-weird manner and persona. A haunting at a museum brings the three together, soon joined by Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA employee with an extensive knowledge of New York history who saw something strange in the subway tunnel.

After following many of the original’s story beats in the setup, the new one — directed by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Spy”) and written by Katie Dippold (“The Heat”) and Feig — takes its own path. Notably, there is no Sigourney Weaver character. Where the ironically detached Peter Venkman needed a potential romance to motivate him to bust ghosts, the new ‘busters are earnest self-starters. The film is thus able to focus on their friendship and teamwork, a theme that is helped by introducing the fourth member of their group much earlier (and for less obvious reasons of tokenism) than poor Winston Zeddmore was.

The central quartet are all funny, separately and together, with Holtzmann the standout and McKinnon the only one of the actresses playing a character we haven’t seen her do before. They’re ably assisted by Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the dumb hunk they hire as their receptionist, whose enthusiastic idiocy is good for several laughs and whose face inspires a spazzy crush from Wiig’s character, Erin. Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Charles Dance, and Steve Higgins all have brief but funny turns. The film zips along smoothly enough, occasionally hilarious but more often just amusing.

The problem, I suspect, is interference from Sony. You can smell the studio notes hindering Feig’s usual looseness and spontaneity, mandating references to the ’84 film, and focus-grouping everything to death. More than any film in the studio’s recent history, everything in “Ghostbusters” has been scrutinized and second-guessed, a process that rarely makes anything funnier. Good ideas emerge — the ghosts turning New York into a past version of itself; Patty’s expertise in local lore; the battle between the Ghostbusters and the mayor (Andy Garcia) who wants to keep things hushed up — but fade away without being developed. Bill Murray’s bizarre cameo doesn’t even have a payoff: we literally do not see what happens to his character. (Dan Aykroyd’s bit will just make you roll your eyes.) On the bright side, the DVD must be loaded with deleted scenes.

There’s a wee bit of “girl power” to the proceedings, though not as much as was forebodingly prophesied in the dank corners of the Internet where anything with a female cast is presumed to be a militant feminist screed. Erin, Abby, Jillian, and Patty support each other as friends and as women, letting what little overt sexism they encounter pass without being hindered by it. When a villain (Neil Casey) excuses his actions with something to the effect of, “You don’t know what it’s like to be bullied,” the Ghostbusters — who have been ridiculed in the scientific community as well as on the Internet — respond with: Uh, yeah we do. People crap on us all the time. So what? Get over it. Let it make you more determined, not more bitter. The only agenda here is to have fun. I suspect there will be even more of it once everybody relaxes and lets Feig & co. do their thing. If nothing else, the next “Ghostbusters II” is bound to be better than the last “Ghostbusters II.”

B- (1 hr., 56 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity and scariness -- much tamer than the PG-rated original, for what it's worth.)