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Ghostbusters

July 15, 2016
Ghostbusters

No movie in recent memory has had as tumultuous a run-up as Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters. A veritable army of self-described nerds came out of the woodwork to declare the foundational importance to their formative years that the original 1984 version had been. They seemed to have a large overlap with the aggrieved nerds who have been pitching a fit over women and “Social Justice Warriors” in video gaming and gaming review spaces. And, just as that group insisted that their tantrum was about “ethics in video game journalism” and not about strenuously — even violently — posting a “No Girls Allowed” sign on their special little clubhouse, the anti-GB16 crowd has insisted that it’s not about sexism, but rather that this of all movies is sacrosanct and cannot be remade.

This tempest hasn’t just whipped up recently; it’s been brewing pretty much since Feig announced that he was going to make this yet another in his recent series of comedies that take typically male-dominated subgenres — that is to say: all of them, but specifically raunch and action comedies — and makes them over with female-centered casts. Melissa McCarthy would be back, of course, along with Bridesmaids‘ Kristen Wiig, and they’d be joined by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. And this made some guys with evidently nothing else wrong with their lives very angry indeed.

The very idea of re-casting the Ghostbusters — again, they insist it had nothing to do with re-casting them as women — was painted as an assault on nerds, who, despite literally everything in popular culture being oriented around their tastes, were positioned as an historically exploited minority like, well, women. They demanded a boycott, and have worked to suppress any positive coverage. Things got even worse when the trailers came out, and then Fall Out Boy’s updated version of the theme song. Those of us who weren’t holding our breath and stamping our feet began to worry: what if the movie turns out to be actually bad? We want to be honest, but we also don’t want to come off as being part of that crowd of jerks. It’s been a tense couple months.

But we can relax. It’s fine.

Is the new Ghostbusters as solid a film as the classic? no, but it was never going to be. Even the guys who made the first movie couldn’t pull it off twice. More to the point, Feig and his co-writer Katie Dippold — who also wrote The Heat — aren’t even trying to remake the original story. There’s no way they’re going to recapture Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’ rhythms anyway. No, this is basically the same kind of Adam McKay-style “set up scenes, let the SNL alumnæ improv a bit, and find the jokes in the editing room” comedy that Feig has been making for years, and it may be the most solidly funny of those he’s done yet.

And the characters are not just gender-swapped versions of the originals. Dr. Erin Gilbert (Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (McCarthy) were childhood friends who once self-published a book where they theorized about ghosts and paranormal phenomena. Erin looks back and sees the reason they were ostracized by the other kids, and worries that it will get her kicked out of the “respectable” academy (spoiler: it does). Abby remains enthused, and has enlisted Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon) to help engineer the equipment she needs to turn those old theories into experimental realities.

Of course, it turns out that their old ideas were right on the money. After their first encounter with a real-dead ghost, the three set up shop above an outer-borough Chinese restaurant; the old fire station is way too expensive. They hire on an extremely pretty, extremely dumb receptionist (Chris Hemsworth) and the fourth member of their research team, MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who knows all about the history of New York City and has Seen Some Stuff down in the tunnels.

In another departure from the original story, the rise in ghostly activities is not happening of its own accord. Rather, someone is using their own paranormal technology to raise the city’s spirits and bring about large-scale calamity. That someone is Rowan North (Neil Casey), an aggrieved nerd who blames the entire world for his childhood torments, and who sees any destruction he can wreak as justifiable revenge.

It’s interesting to notice how little of the plot hinges on the fact that the leads are all women. Hemsworth’s secretary is the most notably gendered reference in the script, and even that is more sendup than commentary. Erin’s worries about her tenure bid, for instance, are entirely grounded in her younger work outside of “respectable” circles. It doesn’t discount the fact that women in physics — and many other academic fields — are subject to horrific sexism and sexual harassment, but it does seem to ignore that fact in favor of a point it’s a lot more interested in making.

To wit: there is a difference between nerds who turn their energies towards building creative, amazing things, and those who turn them towards bitterness and tearing down what other people create. I don’t know whether Feig and Dippold rewrote their script in light of the rising tide of hate and bile gushing towards their project, or if they already knew going in what they’d be opening up. Either way, Rowan is a perfect skewering of the mean, spiteful, self-important “nerds” who have taken such grave offense at the very idea of this movie’s existence.

Meanwhile, Erin, Abby, Jillian, and yes, even Patty show off the good side of nerdiness. They all love and excel in their particular fields of interest, and they celebrate each other’s achievements. Most of them are technical, as we usually think of nerds, but Patty’s knowledge of history is just as useful and important as Jillian’s engineering. They all felt excluded by the people around them at one point, but rather than trying to exclude someone else as a scapegoat, they remember the importance of including and holding each other up.

Ghostbusters may have its problems. As funny as it can be, the improv-heavy production style still ends up feeling loose compared to a completely scripted comedy. Winston Zeddemore’s odd-man-out status on the old team was a bit of-its-time racist, and Patty doesn’t really fix that at all. And it’s kind of weird to have a major setting and a running gag built around a Chinese restaurant and not to see a single person of East Asian descent on screen. But the way that it stands as its own rebuttal to the controversy that a bunch of selfish, sexist jerks tried to whip up against it is perfect.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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