Opening Friday, July 15, 2016

Contrary to all the sexist noise online, remaking Ghostbusters with a female cast was not a bad idea. Of course not—with director Paul Feig behind the camera and Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in front of it, it was an empirically good idea.

Unfortunately, the result of that good idea is a pretty bad movie.

In fact, the new Ghostbusters is lazy, uninspired, and really close to insulting. Feig and the film’s four leads—Wiig, McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon—are all comedy professionals with strong track records. But this is a highly deficient comedy product. The script is so weak it should have never made it into production, and the performances aren’t good enough to save it.

The new Ghostbusters follows the same general story outline as the original. It’s an old-fashioned remake in that way, not a reboot or re-imagining or sequel or prequel. Wiig, McCarthy, and McKinnon play discredited parapsychologists who are kicked out of academia and make a break for the private sector. Jones comes on board later as hired help, like the character Winston in the original movie.

As a tech startup, the Ghostbusters’ timing is just right. Something sinister is brewing in New York City, and eldritch apparitions are popping up all over town. The team’s paranormal exterminator service is a success. They hire a ditzy receptionist—Chris Hemsworth, gender-switching the original role played by Annie Potts.

Many of the old story beats are resurrected: the remodeled hearse. The meeting with the mayor. The interdiction of federal authorities. The genuinely weird obsession with slime. The big showdown with a Godzilla-sized evil manifestation.

What’s missing is any playfulness, spontaneous fun, or consistent attitude toward the material. The movie’s very few comic sparks are generated almost by accident, in riffs that are clearly improvised, or by McKinnon, who brings her peculiar comic energy. I kept hoping that the camera might follow her out of frame, off the set, and into another, better movie.

In a way, the clumsy script reveals how flimsy the original storyline really was, with its proton streams and Sumerian mythology and portable ghost traps. Bill Murray and the gang worked some powerful movie mojo in the original. The comedy clicked in that weird and unknowable way that sometimes happens when parts add up to more than their sum.

Virtually nothing clicks in Feig’s remake. Individual scenes don’t begin or end; they meander in and peter out. The special-effects sequences are fine, but when Feig cuts away to our heroes, we don’t get crafted jokes or clever bits. We get standard-issue action dialogue at best, or stale one-liners that belong on Full House circa 1992. (“Boo-ya! Emphasis on the boo!”) Sometimes we get nothing at all, just McCarthy mugging—and that’s a huge waste, because she’s one of the funniest people on the planet.

Those terrific peripheral characters from the original—Louis Tully, Walter Peck—are replaced by inert stand-ins. The villain is a bore. The much-hyped cameos by Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and a few others fall flat—each and every one—in a rush of self-conscious awkwardness. Eventually, the film devolves into a frantic digital-effects showcase pretending to be a third act.

The initial misogynistic reaction to this remake was a genuine phenomenon, but I have never paid much attention to these knuckleheads who say women can’t be funny. It’s an opinion too dumb to engage, and life’s too short. Of course it’s idiotic to dismiss Ghostbusters because of the female casting—it seems amateurish to even comment on it. But it’s also wrong to give the movie a pass for the same reason. This is a big-budget studio tentpole movie, made by highly paid Hollywood professionals, and it’s a raw deal.

An interesting twist: There’s a rumor going around that studio marketing people deliberately fanned the flames of the hater debate to obscure the fact that they have a bad movie on their hands. That doesn’t mitigate the fact that there were flames to be fanned at all, but it’s just diabolical enough to be true. If you keep people talking about gender issues in Hollywood, maybe they’ll neglect to talk about how terrible this movie actually is.