Ghostbusters is a good movie, but its meta-commentary keeps it from being great

The all-female reboot is plenty of fun, but addressing the haters holds the film back.

Ghostbuster's Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.
Patty (Leslie Jones), Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in 'Ghostbusters.' –Columbia Pictures

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Is Ghostbusters a good movie? Yes. Should you go see it? Yes. Is it as good as the 1984 original? Probably not, but that’s up for discussion.

Reviews don’t typically start with a disclaimer like this, but ever since rumors of an all-female Ghostbusters reboot first surfaced in August 2014, the discussion surrounding the film has had far more to do with the stars’ gender than anything else.

An all-female Ghostbusters comes at a turbulent time in the American social narrative. A combative presidential campaign, typified by inflammatory (and sometimes sexist) rhetoric, has emboldened some with misogynistic views to become more vocal. At the same time, the continued rise of social media means that one bungled tweet can brand someone a woman-hater. It’s a world of extremes, full of symbolic battlegrounds, and Ghostbusters has become one of them.

The Ghostbusters Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty (Leslie Jones) in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.
The Ghostbusters use their proton packs in an attempt to capture a ghost. —Columbia Pictures
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The film stars four hilarious actresses in Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. Its co-writer/director, Paul Feig, has made a career out of making films for funny women, including multiple collaborations with Wiig and McCarthy, and he’s in his element once more. His version of Ghostbusters has stellar action scenes, a great supporting cast, and ghosts that — in the grand tradition of the 1984 original — are the perfect blend of silly and scary.

Where the film occasionally suffers, however, is in the moments it abandons the comic chemistry of its stars and kickass action set pieces in favor of addressing the haters through hamfisted meta-commentary. Given the volume of criticism the movie faced during pre-production, a response was probably inevitable, and to Feig’s credit, not every fourth-wall-breaking moment falls flat. Ghostbusters is a good movie, but it would be a great movie if it avoided some of the self-awareness and spent more time being itself.

In one scene, the Ghostbusters upload footage of a ghost they’ve encountered to YouTube. No one believes it’s real.

Wiig, who plays cautious tenure-track professor Erin Gilbert, and McCarthy, who plays Abby Yates, a freewheeling scientist buried in the basement of an unaccredited college, go through the video’s comments, reading multiple nasty comments to the effect of “women can’t catch ghosts.” By the time they’re done, Erin is fighting Abby to get at the computer and righteously thrash the haters, but Abby won’t let her, reminding her that nothing is accomplished by responding.

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Using YouTube comments as a stand-in for generalized internet hate is a bit cliche, and in the scheme of the film’s overall narrative, the scene is jarring. But who can blame Feig and co-writer Kate Dippold for including it?

In the comments section of the very first Hollywood Reporter article announcing Feig was considering an all-female reboot, the top-voted comments are fat jokes about Melissa McCarthy playing Slimer or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, two portly ghosts from the original film.

“Making the leads women instead of our classic heros [sic]? That’s an insult to this franchise,” reads another top comment.

The creators of Ghostbusters didn’t make the movie in a vacuum, and were well aware of the torrent of criticism they faced months before even stepping on set. But the film would have been better served if Feig and Dippold had leaned toward Abby’s approach instead of Erin’s.

Erin (Kristen Wiig), Abby (Melissa McCarthy), and Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) at the Paranormal Studies Lab.
The Ghostbusters at the Paranormal Studies Lab. —Columbia Pictures

There are times when the meta-commentary of Ghostbusters works. Bill Murray’s cameo appearance as an expert ghost skeptic is amusing and welcome. He pops up on cable TV to dismiss the possibility of ghosts out of hand, then later demands to see the ghost himself even after thousands of eyewitnesses saw it themselves. That said, there’s very little subtext to the moment when he condescendingly tells the Ghostbusters that he refuses to believe that “you four women” are the ones who finally found proof of the paranormal.

Neil Casey’s villain is another addition that generally works on both a straightforward and meta-textual level. He unleashes hell on Earth because others have made life hell for him, while also functioning as a metaphor for the disaffected fanboys who unleashed hell on the film and its cast because to them, ensuring a female Ghostbusters reboot fails is of astronomical importance.

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The many callbacks to the 1984 Ghostbusters in the name of fan service only work about half of the time. Murray’s aforementioned cameo is great, and a subtle nod to the late Harold Ramis, who played scientist Egon Spengler in the original, is touching. But appearances by Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson are both odd and abrupt, and a funny scene that concludes with the visual punchline of the original Ghostbusters logo fizzles out.

If this review seems overly critical, let it be said once again: Ghostbusters is absolutely worth seeing. The chemistry of the four stars and the comedy they produce is better than much of what you’ll find in theaters this summer. The action scenes, and the new arsenal of Ghostbusting weapons the ladies are given (beyond the standard-issue proton packs) are elaborate and creative. It’s only when the film delves into winks and nods — some of which end up being more like shouts and screams — that Ghostbusters loses its way.

If Sony decides the Ghostbusters reboot deserves a sequel, hopefully Feig and co. will be freed from the shackles of fan expectations and can lift the franchise to its full potential.

The Ghostbusters Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty (Leslie Jones) inside the Mercado Hotel Lobby in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.
The Ghostbusters in the lobby of the haunted Mercado Hotel. —Columbia Pictures

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