Fake Controversy, Terrible Comedy

The new Ghostbusters isn’t a feminist triumph. It’s just a bad movie.

Ghostbusters. YouTube

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The new Ghostbusters will long be remembered as a feminist high point in American film history, proving that talented women can carry a big-budget franchise film that was formerly a vehicle for male performers.

Nah, I’m just kidding — the film’s a forgettable piece of junk!

It even looks like junk, because director Paul Feig is so hell-bent on replicating a successful franchise, he apparently told the production designer to evoke the ugly 1980s look of the original mega-hit, including its cheesy, primitive, neon-colored CGI and special effects. Every set looks like it was built by high school students doing an “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts” prom theme.

Nobody should consider this Ghostbusters important for any reason whatsoever.

Don’t believe the hype. The Ghostbusters publicity campaign has used puling fanboy misogyny — which is always worth ignoring — to whip up a furious counter-reaction promoting the film as a feminist cause célèbre.

It’s worked like a charm. Earnest think pieces have excoriated despicable “Ghost Bros” for wrecking the dreams of women everywhere by blaming the female leads when the “the worst trailer ever” was released. Platoons of solemn interviewers have asked Feig how he’s weathering the terrible storm surrounding his film, as if controversy doesn’t typically help a movie’s box office returns.

People forget that the Ghostbusters brouhaha is just a pumped-up variation of the same publicity scam that attended the opening of Bridesmaids, 2011’s “feminist triumph,” a women-centered comedy also directed by Paul Feig and starring Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in a large female ensemble.

According to the Bridemaids ballyhoo, if we didn’t all go see it as an act of feminist solidarity, no Hollywood movie would ever again feature several women in lead roles. Women would virtually disappear from our screens, and soon every American film would be a reprehensible sausage fest, nothing but remakes of The Lusty Men, The Lost Boys, Young Guns, The Expendables, and The Dirty Dozen.

The publicity worked wonders for Bridesmaids, which is a funnier film than Ghostbusters. But that isn’t saying much — The Revenant is also much funnier than Ghostbusters.

I’ll admit that several people I know are coming out of the woodwork exclaiming over how surprisingly funny Ghostbusters is, and how much they enjoyed it. This baffles me. There’s so much better comedy readily available around us, you’d think we’d have higher standards. For example, every episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Rick and Morty is at least one hundred times funnier, smarter, and more heartening than this plodding, overstuffed, and undernourished film.

But as a public service, I’ve broken down what people report they particularly enjoyed:

  • Slime, with its special appeal to children and young teens;
  • Kate McKinnon’s punky, destructive joy in the role of tech geek, which has generated declarations of undying love;
  • The movie’s general silliness, because everybody’s so fed up with 2016 they’re grateful for any distraction;
  • And a nerdy villain, who seems like the “Ghost Bro” type, getting shot in the testicles.

Still, as much I want to be fair, I have to report the facts.

Ghostbusters is a film so incompetently made that nothing can save the comic actors trapped in it. All are made to look like unentertaining idiots, regardless of gender.

It’s poignant to imagine the painful career climb made by these gifted people — Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — coming up through grubby comedy clubs and appalling sitcoms and laugh-free Saturday Night Live skits, just to get to this apex of fame and fortune: starring roles in the big Ghostbusters reboot.

Think how thrilled they must’ve been to wear the jumpsuits and proton packs that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson donned as they made their leaps into the big-time. And on top of that, they actually got to rub elbows with the heroes of the original 1984 hit, most of whom make cameos in the film.

Except here’s the thing: the returning male stars are also terrible in the reboot. I can think of no more damning statement to make than that, in this new Ghostbusters, Bill Murray isn’t funny. He’s not even mildly amusing.

A man who can make any line hilarious — “Human sacrifice! Cats and dogs living together! Mass hysteria!” — a comic genius who’s so innately laugh-inducing he only has to stand there silently and look sideways while rapidly blinking his eyes to make audiences roar, and yet he’s as unfunny in this film as eighty-year-old Bob Hope doing his thousandth USO tour. In Murray’s small, stupidly written role as an effete debunker of the paranormal, he seems, for the first time, like a clueless has-been in a silly hat, unable to land a single punch line.

And Murray’s cameo is a riot compared to Aykroyd’s. The whole thing’s a travesty, I tell you!

It’s not the performers’ fault. Melissa McCarthy is as brilliant a bit-saver as exists in this cinematic dark age of ours, as she’s proven in half a dozen bad comedies already, but she can’t give life to this rotting corpse of a film.

It’s screenwriter Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig who ought to be ridden out of Hollywood on a rail. Never mind the hideously boring last third of the movie in which we watch our heroines repeatedly blast a bunch of poorly rendered CGI ghosts — that’s bad in a completely expected climactic-action-scene kind of way.

Even before that, the slack script limps along with pathetically few laugh lines, but plenty of deadly exposition scenes. Just watch Kristen Wiig cringe her way through a stilted monologue explaining her character’s backstory, all about how she was bullied as a child for her belief in the paranormal, and called “ghost girl.” She ought to sue.

The plotting is relentless, starting with an interminable series of character introductions. Wiig plays a Columbia University physics professor struggling to get tenure. In her extensive opening scenes, she has only one decent line, in response to what she thinks is her department chair’s criticism of her absurdly prim bow-tied outfit: “Too sexy for academia?”

After that she still has to have a lengthy confrontation with her former partner in paranormal research (Melissa McCarthy), whom she deserted for “legitimate science,” and then meet that partner’s new partner, the weirdsmobile techie (Kate McKinnon), and then meet the subway worker who blathers pointlessly about New York City history. (Poor Leslie Jones, it’s just a god-awful role.).

Then they all have to meet their new receptionist, a muscular dope hired for his good looks. He’s played by Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame, who weirdly enough earns more laughs than anyone else in the movie. This gender-switch, putting a man in the old bimbo secretary role, is about the height of feminism the film reaches.

And Paul Feig directs as if he were drunk driving, swerving his camera and drifting around woozily while the awkwardly grouped actors try to say their lines. There might have been more laughs if Feig had been willing (or able) to focus on the actors’ delivery and hadn’t instructed his editor to cut precisely at each laugh-killing spot.

But the problem goes deeper than that. Feig seems possessed by a shameful timidity that reveals why current American film comedies suck so dreadfully. Let him tell it:

We test the shit out of these movies, for months, going, “Is this funny?” At the beginning of the movie, one of the first jokes was something Zach Woods ad-libbed about how this rich person’s mansion is one of the earliest, most well-equipped mansions in the country. It included a face bidet and an anti-Irish security system fence. I was like, “Are people going to be offended by that?”

. . . Huge laugh, every time, but I kept it out for a long time. I worried people would be offended. We tested it, and it got giant laughs. We tested it again, same thing. I thought, “OK, maybe it’s cool because clearly we’re not saying boo to the Irish. We’re saying, back then, there was a ridiculous period in our history where Irish people were discriminated against.” It’s a non-PC joke that is funny because it is in service of a good cause.

First off, note that the funniest line of the otherwise dull opening sequence was not scripted; it was improvised by Zach Woods (who really shows what inspired work he can do in the brilliant HBO comedy Silicon Valley). And it’s only a mildly funny, fairly familiar line anyway — The Simpsons have been doing hilarious gags about old-time anti-Irish prejudice for decades.

Yet the mansion’s “anti-Irish security fence” line that’s getting the biggest laughs is regarded as so risky and “non-PC,” Feig can’t decide if he should keep it. Only the strange idea that this line will educate people about past anti-Irish discrimination makes it safe enough for contemporary audiences.

Feig’s ringing the death knell of comedy right there. “Safe comedy” is an oxymoron, with emphasis on the “moron.” Comedy is all wired up with what scares and offends us, what we repress or what society suppresses, or both. Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious, anyone?

Freud may have gotten a lot of things wrong, but he wasn’t such a dummy that he couldn’t recognize the millions of jokes, gags, and punch-lines built around sex, death, scatology, forbidden primal impulses, social tensions, and taboos, in order to relieve our terrible grinding anxiety through laughter. There’s no way to make that process safe and still wind up with good comedy.

But Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is probably going to do pretty well anyway. It’s a pasteurized, processed, homogenized comedy enriched with fake controversy for your consuming pleasure.

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